APJ Abdul Kalam ‘How I became President of India’


Former President Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam (October 15, 1931 – July 27, 2015) died at a hospital in Shillong, Meghalaya on Monday. He reportedly collapsed on stage at the Indian Institute of Management, where he had gone to deliver a lecture.  

In this extract from Turning Points: A Journey through Challenges, he describes the events leading up to his becoming the 11th President of India.

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. I had been enjoying my time in the large, tranquil campus, working with professors and inquisitive students on research projects and teaching. The authorized strength of my class was sixty students, but during every lecture, the classroom had more than 350 students and there was no way one could control the number of participants. My purpose was to understand the aspirations of the youth, to share my experiences from my many national missions and to evolve approaches for the application of technology for societal transformation through a specially designed course of ten lectures for postgraduate students.

What do I mean by national mission? I am referring to the space launch vehicle, SLV-3, the IGMDP (Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme), the 1998 nuclear tests, and the India 2020 report prepared by TIFAC (Technology Information, Forecasting and Assessment Council). All in all, these had a measurable impact on development and setting the growth trajectory of the nation. The objective of the SLV-3 programme was to launch a satellite indigenously for placing the 40 kg Rohini satellite in near-earth orbit. The satellite was intended for making ionospheric measurements. The IGMDP was intended to fulfil the need for force multiplier missile systems for national security, both tactical and strategic. The Agni V missile is its latest success. The nuclear tests were held on 11 and 13 May 1998. With these, India became a nuclear weapon state. TIFAC resulted in generating the road map for India to transform it into an economically developed nation by 2020.

It was my ninth lecture, entitled ‘Vision to Mission’, and it included several case studies. When I finished, I had to answer numerous questions and my class extended from a one-hour teaching session to two hours. After the lecture, I returned to my office, as on any other day, and had lunch with a group of research students. Prasangam, the cook, served us delicious food with a lot of smiles. After lunch, I prepared for my next class, and in the evening, I returned to my rooms.

As I was walking back, Prof A Kalanidhi, the vice chancellor of Anna University, joined me. He said that my office had received many telephone calls during the day and someone was frantically trying to get in touch with me. As soon as I reached my rooms, I found the telephone was 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, who was the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, called me on my cellphone. He told me to expect an important call from the prime minister, adding, ‘Please do not say no.’

While I was talking to Naidu, the call from Atal Bihari Vajpayee materialized.

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 to have 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.

I hadn’t even had time to sit down after entering the room. Different images of the future appeared before me. One was that of being always surrounded by students and teachers. In the other, I was addressing Parliament with a vision for the nation. A decision matrix was evolving in my mind. I said, ‘Vajpayeeji (as I normally addressed him), can you give me two hours’ time to decide? It is also necessary that there be a consensus among all political parties on my nomination as presidential candidate.’

Vajpayee said, ‘After you agree, we will work for a consensus.’

Over the next two hours, I must have made thirty telephone calls to my close friends. Among them were people in academia and friends in the civil services and in politics too. One view that came across was that I was enjoying an academic life, which is my passion and love, and I shouldn’t disturb it. The second view was that this was an opportunity to put forth the India 2020 vision in front of the nation and Parliament, and that I must jump at it. Exactly after two hours, I was connected to the prime minister. I said, ‘Vajpayeeji, I consider this to be a very important mission and I would like to be an all-party candidate.’

He said, ‘Yes, we will work for it, thank you.’

The news travelled very fast indeed. Within 15 minutes, the news of my choice as presidential candidate was known throughout the country. Immediately, I was bombarded with an unmanageable number of telephone calls, my security was intensified and a large number of visitors gathered in my room.

The same day, Vajpayee consulted with Mrs Sonia Gandhi, the opposition leader, about the choice of candidate. When Mrs Gandhi asked whether the NDA’s choice was final, the prime minister responded in the affirmative. After due consultation with her party members and coalition partners, Mrs Gandhi announced the support of the Indian National Congress (INC) to my candidature on 17 June 2002. I would have loved to get the support of the Left parties also but they decided to nominate their own candidate. As soon as I agreed to be a candidate for the presidency, a huge number of write-ups began to appear about me. Many questions were raised by the media. In essence, they were asking, how could a non-political person, particularly a scientist, become president of the nation?

Excerpted from Turning Points: A Journey through Challenges, APJ Abdul Kalam HarperCollins India.

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