I vividly remember how Dr APJ Kalam caught my imagination as a man who was above board on every issue. I used to be a reporter covering the ruling BJP then. The election to chair of the President of India was a hot topic of debate since it was the NDA that had decided to field him as their candidate. The Congress too had supported his candidature. His winning was a foregone conclusion.
Then Union Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pramod Mahajan was his election agent and was the first to meet him after Dr Kalam won on 18 July 2002. He was to take oath on 25 July. A couple of days before that, Mahajan met with him and sought to know whether he considered any day or time auspicious for the oath ceremony. Kalam looked serious and then smiled and told Pramod this:
Till the earth rotates on its axis and it causes day and night and till the earth revolves around the orbit and it causes other changes, I am fine with any time and date.
Late Pramod Mahajan told media persons that he was pleasantly surprised with such a scientific explanation by the president. We all know this, but very seldom apply it in our daily lives. The NDA had reasons to be proud of their nominee.
Many secularists who consider themselves atheist or agnostic are the first to resort to religious rituals if they have to take oath of an important office. And here was a man who was a nationalist rooted to India’s tradition and had a scientific explanation for everything.
This episode increased my respect for him manifold.
Dr Kalam’s tenure as President of India, his various speeches and particularly those that exhorted young school students were very impressive. One just needed to see him interact with people to know how comfortable he was with the common man and their issues.
I remember another incident when an author Satyadev from the United States sought an appointment to meet him. The author had rendered Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas in English verse, a rare masterpiece that he wanted to gift to the former president. APJ was not only happy to meet him, but he also started speaking about many aspects of the Ramayana and its various versions. He understood the importance of versical Ramayana in English as the Indian Diaspora finds it difficult to connect with the epic in Hindi or Sanskrit. He lauded the author for his work.
The author was immensely impressed with Dr Kalam’s scholarship on Hindu literature. I had my own moment of glory when I showed him the English rendering of a particular verse, being its publisher, and he smiled and gave some valuable suggestions. I have kept safe my photograph with him of that date.
Knowing fully well his praise for development in Gujarat, I was very keen that he should release my book on Narendra Modi called Narendra Modi: The GameChanger. This was a book on development of Gujarat. But some people in his team were unsure of his association with the name of Modi. They perhaps saw the book through a divisive prism. I felt sad when a note of regret arrived from his office. I thought of presenting a copy of the book to him but alas this could not happen.
Photograph: Then President APJ Abdul Kalam addressing the nation on the eve of the 58th Republic Day in New Delhi on 25 January 2007.