(1896-1995) Indian politician. An early follower of Mahatma Gandhi, he was independent India's first non-Congress Party prime minister 1977–79, as leader of the Janata party, after toppling Indira Gandhi. Party infighting led to his resignation of both the premiership and the party leadership.
Born in Gujarat, W India, Desai's early career was as a civil servant working for the British Raj. Strongly influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, Desai resigned from the civil service 1930 and committed his life to the Indian freedom movement. Although jailed for his participation in the Civil Disobedience Campaign, he was elected to the Bombay legislature 1935 and became the state's chief minister 1951. A disciplined teetotaller, vegetarian and, from the age of 32, celibate, he imposed prohibition in the state.
Jawaharlal Nehru brought Desai into the federal administration of independent India 1956 and appointed him finance minister 1958. However, his relations with Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi, who became prime minister in 1966, were strained; Desai, who had previously derided her as a “mere schoolgirl” and, being politically more conservative, resigned in 1969 in opposition to plans to nationalize India’s banks. His departure caused a serious split in the ruling Congress Party; Desai went on to form the Janata Party, which gained power after the state of emergency 1975–77 imposed by Indira Gandhi when she was found guilty of electoral malpractice.
At the age of 81, Desai became the world’s oldest prime minister and, as a true Gandhian, sought to encourage the revival of cottage industries, and delayed the manufacture of India’s nuclear bomb. However, the fractious Janata coalition stayed together for only two years. Desai’s frank, difficult, obdurate, and eccentric personality contributed to his demise as premier July 1979, when he retired from politics. He remained in remarkable health and ascribed his longevity to his ascetic regimen and, in particular, the health-giving powers of his remarkable twice daily ritual of drinking his own urine, which he described as “the water of life”.