Dr A P J Abdul Kalam, who has just concluded his term as Indian President, did not find "any difference" between the previous government run by Atal Behari Vajpayee and the present one headed by Dr Manmohan Singh. Kalam was elected President when the BJP had only two years of its five-year tenure left. He left office when the Congress had completed more than three years in power. Even my repeated assertion that the two governments must have differed in some way or the other elicited a smile and a cryptic remark: "Both were the same."
But his dislike for coalitions was unequivocal. "They impede development," he said. The government had to cater to different parties. There were pressures, which required accommodation within the space available. I was not surprised to hear his views, because he had publicly stated that he was in favour of a two-party system. His reasoning was that thus the democratic system would be better served.
I have met all Indian Presidents from 1950 when India became a republic. Among all of them, Dr Rajendra Prasad, our first President, and Dr Kalam endeared themselves to the masses most. Both had the deportment and the temperament, which appealed to the people. I have always regretted not being able to interview Rajendra Prasad. However, I was able to talk to Dr Kalam a few days before his term got over.
Kalam was forthright when it came to his duties as head of state. "I have seen to it that the Constitution is respected both in letter and spirit," he said. He gave two examples: One, of returning the Office of Profit Bill to the Manmohan Singh government and, two, of seeking a reply from the Vajpayee government to a memorandum of complaints that some eminent citizens had submitted to him enlisting some government steps that violated fundamental rights.
I asked about the report that has been circulating and which has been nagging me for some time, that he had asked Mrs Sonia Gandhi about her Italian citizenship when she met him after the 2004 general election. Kalam vehemently denied doing so. He said that he never expressed any reservation whatsoever on her becoming Prime Minister. She met him twice, he said, once, when she informed him that the UPA-Left combine had a majority in the Lok Sabha, and the second time when she brought Dr Manmohan Singh with her to convey to him that the latter would head the UPA government.
The President was keen to explain how he had converted Rashtrapati Bhavan into a People’s Bhavan. He had invited thousands and thousands of ordinary civil servants, students and children to Rashtrapati Bhavan and had specially laid out a garden for the handicapped. He had demystified the awe-inspiring Rashtrapati Bhavan, once the Viceroy House, and brought it to the level where the common man could frequent it. But my effort was to divert the conversation to something newsy, to something, which he had not mentioned earlier. News was that way different, more negative than positive. He realised what I was doing and we battled for 45 minutes, with me wanting to extract from him some secret and he trying to project the India of his vision.
Did he expect the Indo-US nuclear deal to go through? He did not reply in terms of "yes" or "no." Instead, he said that our real problem was uranium, which was rare in India. "We should be developing thorium, which is available in plenty, as a fuel." He diverted the conversation to the explosion of the bomb and congratulated the then government for that. The bomb, he said, had given an impetus to growth all over. "Everything began developing, industrial and other fields after that."
Kalam was so transparent and so impressive that I wish the political parties had agreed to give him a second term. He said he had indicated that he was "available" if there was consensus. But his "remark was misunderstood" in some quarters, he complained.
I recall how a couple of Union ministers and the Congress spokesperson had criticised him, it was as if he had thrown his hat into the ring. Their comments against a serving President were unfortunate, to say the least.
Recalling his travels within the country and abroad, the President said, "I have addressed seven Parliaments in foreign countries and 17 Assemblies within India to put across my vision that the country would be a developed nation by 2020." He said that while addressing the European Parliament he told them that the "world over, poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and deprivation are driving forward the forces of anger and violence. These forces link themselves to some earlier real or perceived historical enmities. Tyrannies, injustice, inequities, ethnic issues and religious fundamentalism are flowing into an outburst of extremism worldwide." In a way, he was commenting on the attacks by the fundamentalists in Glasgow, Islamabad and elsewhere.
Why did he not visit neighbouring countries? "I had invitations from Pakistan and Sri Lanka," was all he said. He did not want to elaborate on the subject. The President’s foreign trips must have the approval of the government. Zail Singh’s trip to Kenya was cancelled by the Rajiv Gandhi government one day before the President’s departure. What were his thoughts about retirement? "I am going to pursue Vision 2020, that India should by then be a developed state in the world." The country would overcome poverty and backwardness. His criterion to assess development was: "A National Prosperity Index (NPI), which is the summation of (a) annual growth rate of GDP; plus (b) improvement in the quality of the life of the people, particularly living below poverty line; plus (c) the adoption of a value system derived from our civilisational heritage in every walk of life which is unique to India."
The President’s passion for India was overflowing. He wanted everyone to think of the country first and everything else later. In his view, all was secondary to national interest.
Where did he place religion? I asked. "Religion comes later. The country comes first." This was his reply to the fundamentalists who say Ummah is above the country. I think India will miss his presence at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. But then he is going to live in New Delhi and pursue his vision. He plans to travel four days a week. Sure, this will keep him busy, including the chancellorship of Nalanda University, which will specialise in Buddhist studies.
What struck me as I shook hands with him to say goodbye were his humility and childlike innocence.
As I left his study, I saw on the wall a photograph of Subramania Bharati, a Tamil poet who too had faith in the greatness of India and who too believed that India would some day revolutionise the world’s thought process.