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Confessions of a President

Former president APJ Abdul Kalam recounts highlights of his tenure in Turning Points. Some excerpts from this sequel to Wings of Fire.

books Updated: Jun 30, 2012 18:45 IST

The morning of 10 June 2002 was like any other day in the beautiful environment of Anna University, where I had been working since December 2001. As I was walking back, Professor A Kalanidhi, the vice chancellor, joined me. He said someone was frantically trying to get in touch with me. As soon as I reached my rooms, I found the telephone ringing. When I answered, a voice on the other end said, ‘The prime minister wants to talk to you.’  While I was waiting to be connected to the PM, Chandrababu Naidu, the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, called me on my cellphone. He told me to expect an important call from the PM, adding, ‘Please do not say no.’”

“While I was talking to Naidu, the call from Atal Bihari Vajpayee materialised. He said, ‘Kalam, how is your academic life?’ ‘It is fantastic,’ I answered. Vajpayee continued, ‘We have some very important news for you. Just now, I am coming from a special meeting attended by leaders of all the coalition parties. We have decided unanimously that the nation needs you as its Rashtrapati. I have to announce this tonight. I would like your concurrence. I need only a ‘yes’, not a ‘no’.”

“Vajpayee, I might mention, was heading the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), a coalition of almost two dozen parties, and it was not always easy getting unanimity.”

Testing our strength

“The fourth turning point was the nuclear tests in 1998. There is an interesting story behind these. Let me go back to May 1996. Elections were held that year. I had met Narasimha Rao just a few days before the announcement of the results. He said to me, ‘Kalam, be ready with your team for the nuclear tests. I am going to Tirupati. You wait for my authorisation to go ahead with the tests.’”

“His visit to Triupati was, of course, to seek God’s blessings for a good result.  However, the 1996 election result was quite different from what he had anticipated. The Congress tally came down sharply, to 136 seats. The BJP and its alliance came to power but only for two weeks, led by Vajpayee, before the third front with HD Deve Gowda as PM took over. However in the two weeks that the Vajpayee government was there, it tried very hard to carry through the nuclear tests.”

“It was 9 o’clock at night. I got a call from 7 Race Course Road requesting that I immediately meet the new prime minister and Rao, the outgoing one. Rao asked me to brief Vajpayee  on the details of the nuclear programme, so that a smooth handover of this important activity to the new government could take place.”

Visiting Gujarat

“We need to evolve a society where crimes against women and children are absent and none in the society feel alienated. These thoughts were prominent in my mind during my visit to Gujarat in August 2002.”

“The PM, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, asked me only one question, ‘Do you consider going to Gujarat at this time essential?’ I told the PM, ‘I consider it an important duty so that I can be of some use to remove pain, and also accelerate relief activities, and bring about a unity of minds which is my mission, as I stressed in my address during the swearing-in ceremony.’”

“Many apprehensions were expressed, among them that my visit might be boycotted by the chief minister, that I would receive a cold reception and that there would be protests from many sides. But, to my great surprise when I landed at Gandhinagar, not only the chief minister, but his entire Cabinet and a large number of  legislators, officials and members of the public were present at the airport. I visited three relief camps and nine riot-hit locations where losses had been high. Narendra Modi, the chief minister, was with me throughout the visit. In one way, this helped me, as wherever I went, I received petitions and complaints and as he was with me I was able to suggest to him that action be taken as quickly as possible.”

“I remember one scene, when I visited a relief camp. A six-year-old boy came up to me, held both my hands and said, ‘Rashtrapatiji, I want my mother and father.’ I was speechless. There itself, I held a quick meeting with the district collector. The chief minister also assured me that the boy’s education and welfare would be taken care by the government.”

A full moon to remember

“When I was awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1997, Chitra Narayanan (daughter of president KR Narayanan) took me, my brother and his grandchildren around the Mughal Gardens. It was such an enjoyable experience that I expressed my desire to see the splendour of the garden during a full moon night. The president and his wife, Mrs Usha Narayanan, heard of it. From then on, whenever I attended an official banquet, the president and the First Lady invited me to stay in Rashtrapati Bhavan. At that time I did not realise that  I was going to see more than sixty full-moon nights in Rashtrapati Bhavan.”

Punishing the guilty

“One of the more difficult tasks for me as president was to decide on the issue of confirming capital punishment awarded by the courts after exhausting all processes of appeals. As a substantial number of cases have been pending in Rashtrapati Bhavan for many years, it is one inherited task that no president would feel happy about. I thought I should get all these cases examined from a normal citizen’s point of view in terms of the crime, intensity of the crime and the social and financial status of the individuals who were convicted and awarded capital punishment. This study revealed to my surprise that almost all the cases which were pending had a social and economic bias. This gave me an impression that we were punishing the person who was least involved in the enmity and who did not have a direct motive for committing the crime. Of course there was one case where I found that the lift operator had in fact committed the crime of raping and killing the girl without doubt. In that case I affirmed the sentence.”

Going nuclear

“The 123 Agreement signed between the US and India is known as the Indo-US nuclear deal. Under this agreement India agreed to separate its civil and military nuclear facilities and to place all its civil nuclear facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. After prolonged negotiations the United Progressive Alliance government had to face a trust vote on 22 July 2008 before signing the safeguards agreement.”

“The crucial element in this trust vote was the Left parties who were supporting the UPA government from outside. They refused to be a party to the agreement. The president of the Samajwadi Party, Mulayam Singh Yadav, and his senior aide Amar Singh were in two minds about the nuclear deal and whether they should extend their support. They were not sure whether the deal would be favourable to India or was being done purely on business considerations by the West, particularly the US. To clarify the position both Mulayam Singh and Amar Singh desired to meet me at my residence at 10 Rajaji Marg and discuss the merits and demerits of the deal. I told them that in the long run, India had to become self-reliant in thorium-based nuclear reactors. That means, we will have clean and abundant energy for all of our development tasks without any strings. The deal will help us to tide over the present shortages with respect to uranium.”