APJ Abdul Kalam was a man utterly devoted to work, not given to any personal indulgences and supremely particular about not misusing his office, paying up for any expense that he felt was personal. It might be surprising then that such a man had enemies, or, let us say, people who did not like him. I put that down to two reasons: one, that Kalam, though apolitical, refused to be a puppet President; and two, that he outshone most politicians at any public forum, which they utterly resented. As the end of his term neared, there was overwhelming public opinion in favour of his continuing in office. He got thousands of letters and emails from across the country telling him he had to continue as President, that he was the person everyone loved and so on. He also got letters from several eminent people asking him to continue in office. I still have one such letter from the eminent jurist Fali Nariman asking him not to refuse an offer of a second term. A lot of the correspondence of that time relating to this is in the possession of his family. The media too seemed to be of the opinion that he should continue.
There was a strong rumour that some politicians too wanted him to continue. He had become President during the reign of the BJP-led NDA, and now it was the Congress-led UPA ruling at the Centre. Some among the Congress wanted him to continue, but not so their supreme leader. There were those who did not want him to continue, as they felt that he was holding up some senior Congress leader’s chance at the post. But soon there were clear feelers being sent out to him to test his readiness for a second term.
Gradually, the media got a whiff of this and, of course, started digging around for opinions and comments to find out if he was indeed under consideration. The leader of one of the left parties supporting the UPA from outside made things very clear when he told the media that the presidential candidate would not be decided by emails and messages—a dig at the correspondence Kalam was receiving exhorting him to continue, news of which seemed to have got around to the media.
Since Kalam’s association with the Pokhran-II blasts, the left had not been in his favour. The other thing that irked them was a random comment Kalam made in one of his speeches as President that India should have a two-party system, and that smaller parties should merge into one party or the other.
Of course, there were individual politicians from the left who liked him. Like Binoy Vishwam of the Communist Party of India (CPI), who rushed from Idukki to Kochi during one of Kalam’s visits to Kerala, and was content to just hold his hand and exchange greetings with him. But politically he had to follow his party’s views.
The CPI’s general secretary A.B. Bardhan, a severe critic of Kalam’s, did not share Vishwam’s reverence for the President; they made a strong pitch for Pratibha Patil. ‘We will show Kalam how a President ought to behave’ was the message their comments and actions conveyed. They were completely against Kalam’s proactive role as President.
There were at least two instances, according to me, when Kalam could have managed a second term as President had he been ready for some quid pro quo politics. A couple of months before he was to demit office, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) patriarch called on him. He had a good number of MPs at that time and told Kalam he could tilt the decision in his favour. However, nothing came of their discussion.
He was soon followed by the supreme leader of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). Her party was in opposition in Tamil Nadu at that time, and she pleaded with Kalam to contest for a second term as a candidate of the Third Front. That would have created a big problem for the largest party at the Centre, and they were already nervous about this possibility as there were many disgruntled insiders who may have voted for Kalam and not the Congress’s candidate. And the AIADMK leader seemed determined to work against the Congress, which was then aligned with her arch-rival. I was told that she made a very strong pitch while trying to persuade Kalam to contest. She promised to gather all the opposition parties to vote for him. But Kalam was firm—if there was no consensus, he would not contest, he said. So, she too, like her rival, left his office dejected by his decision not to contest.
Until May (Kalam’s tenure was to end in July 2007), there was a rumour floating about that Kalam’s candidature was not ruled out. Then came the sudden announcement by the UPA of their choice of Pratibha Patil. Perhaps they did not want a President with a public face and public support; they did not like it that a President had become so popular. However, even though the UPA and the left supported Patil, if Kalam had tried hard he may have fetched comparable support, but then he wanted to be liked by all. I strongly felt that he would have liked to continue but did not want to risk a defeat. That was one weakness of his, perhaps—that he wanted constant assurance that he was liked and respected by all. He was afraid of criticism of any kind and tried his best to avoid controversy. He also feared that people might call him power-hungry, someone who wanted to stick on to his seat. In 2002 he had had the support of 80 per cent of the political leaders. Now, in 2007, he was not too sure and did not want to jump into the fray if he was not assured one hundred per cent success.
AMONG THOSE who were not in favour of Kalam was the Congress chief. It was believed that Kalam did not discourage questions that were raised about her Indian citizenship after she emerged victorious in the 2004 elections and the Congress wanted her to become prime minister. In his memoirs Kalam has written that he received a large amount of correspondence from both individuals and institutions questioning her citizenship status and that he had passed them on to the relevant agencies. In Turning Points: A Journey through Challenges, Kalam wrote: During this time there were many political leaders who came to meet me to request me not to succumb to any pressure and appoint Mrs Gandhi as the Prime Minister, a request that would not have been constitutionally tenable. If she had made any claim for herself I would have had no option but to appoint her.
It does appear that Kalam was not a walkover and wanted due process to be followed but the Congress leader considered this as his doubting her credentials to become prime minister (whether she wanted to or not). Kalam never said anything openly about her citizenship, but somehow I got the impression that everything about what he did and did not do at the time indicated that he felt she could not become prime minister. That must have been relayed to her or was sensed by her.
There was another episode that alienated him from the Congress chief even more. In 2006 the government moved an ordinance to redefine ‘office of profit’. Kalam returned the Office of Profit Bill which exempted certain offices of state and central governments—including the National Advisory Council (NAC) headed by Sonia Gandhi—from the purview of office of profit for MPs, but when the UPA sent it back unchanged, he signed it.
As an MP, the Congress chief could not hold any office of profit. So this ordinance was widely perceived as a move to save her from disqualification as an MP. A mighty furore erupted, and many political parties—the BJP and the Samajwadi Party in the forefront—petitioned the President for her disqualification as an MP.
Kalam’s attitude towards whatever files the government sent him was to keep them and examine them. He would not just mechanically sign them and send them on. An MP could hold only one post in the government. The Congress chief was UPA chairperson and NAC chairman. As per the rule, she could not hold so many posts. She had to resign either as MP or as NAC head. It was because of Kalam’s adamancy that the ordinance was put on hold.
The Congress chief responded by dramatically resigning as both MP and NAC chief, and for some time she was not an MP till she got re-elected. That she felt Kalam did not take her side was evident when Rahul Gandhi came to meet Kalam. He was closeted with the President for a full hour. That was the only time I saw Rahul Gandhi meeting Kalam. The next time I saw him was at Kalam’s funeral in Rameswaram, travelling in a special aircraft all alone nine years later to show the nation that they were not against Kalam. To go back to the meeting, once Rahul Gandhi left the room, I asked Kalam, ‘Sir, why has he suddenly come?’ Kalam gave me some ridiculous explanation, but was smiling broadly. ‘He wanted my guidance,’ was all he told me. Definitely, there had been some tough talk behind those closed doors that day.
But Kalam’s quiet projection of himself as an upright person, and perhaps the only one for miles around, really annoyed many people. Kalam loved to project himself as someone no one could point fingers at. Of course, he never openly said all this, but his speeches and the way he led conversations make that clear.
All this must have irked the Congress chief. Had he been on good terms with her, he would definitely have been supported for a second term. From my observations and calculations, this dislike was mutual. Kalam was not for the Congress or the BJP. But he did like Vajpayee very much and always visited him to wish him on his birthday till the last year of his life.
It is to Kalam’s credit that despite these run-ins with the Congress chief he was gracious enough to extend help to the Congress and lent a hand in preventing the fall of UPA-I. The government was in a critical condition and was seeking a vote of confidence over the India–US nuclear treaty, the seeds of which had been sown in 2005 between President George Bush and Manmohan Singh. The left would clearly not vote for it, having ideological problems with the deal. But Mulayam Singh Yadav, the Samajwadi Party chief, whose support was critical for the government, was not entirely convinced about the deal either. Finally, Mulayam agreed that if Kalam said the deal was good for India, he would support the government. Kalam was no longer President and had moved to a house he had been provided on Rajaji Marg. Mulayam visited him there and discussed the deal with him. Kalam told him the deal would be good for India and that the country should proceed with it. When Mulayam emerged from the meeting, he had decided to support the deal, and the government survived. Still, the Congress chief neither visited nor called on Kalam to acknowledge the good turn he had done her government. Of course, to be fair to her, she had never requested him to speak in support of the deal either. But then, Manmohan Singh soon visited him at his house to personally thank him, perhaps on his chief’s instructions.
Somehow, it was ensured that Congress leaders kept away from Kalam. In 2011, when the nation was reeling under various corruption scandals that were being reported every other day—the Commonwealth Games scandal and the 2G and coal ‘scams’—Kalam was disturbed at the developments and asked us to connect him to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Within no time the prime minister called back. Kalam told the prime minister he wanted to discuss some issues of national importance with him at his place. Manmohan Singh immediately responded with a ‘Yes, of course’. But instead of Kalam visiting his office, he would come over to Kalam’s residence, he assured him. Kalam was happy that the prime minister had responded positively to his request. But the visit was not to be. Manmohan Singh never made it, despite several reminders sent to his office. We were told later he allegedly could not get the approval of his leader for the meeting. This happened again the next year. I must have spent a whole day making those telephone calls to Singh’s office. The prime minister was simply not permitted to meet Kalam. A meeting would of course have set the rumour mills ringing. There would be speculations on the meeting, and a press statement or conference may have had to be held to clarify what the meeting was about. There would have been ramifications.
IN 2012, WHEN it was time for presidential elections again, there seemed to be another sliver of hope that Kalam might get a second term as President when Mamata Banerjee and Mulayam Singh Yadav advanced their list of presidential candidates featuring Kalam at the top. Subramanian Swamy visited Kalam one day to persuade him to contest. Mamata Banerjee and Mulayam were defying the Congress, which had proposed the name of Pranab Mukherjee. Kalam indicated that he was in principle ready to contest, but that he would have to be a consensus candidate and would not proactively take any initiative in the matter. Mamata Banerjee was at the forefront, mounting support for him. She and Mulayam had a substantial number of MPs with them, and their withdrawal from the government would have posed a threat to UPA-II. But Kalam’s hopes, if he had any, were dashed when overnight Mulayam changed his stance and supported the Congress’s choice.
Mulayam had had a long and strong friendship with Kalam. I believe that Kalam’s nomination for the Bharat Ratna resulted chiefly from Mulayam’s efforts. When he was defence minister in the United Front government in the late 1990s, he had ordered that all files sent to him were to be in Hindi. This had put Kalam in a spot. But Mulayam had been very generous towards Kalam and had adjusted his requirements so Kalam could communicate with him in English. And as mentioned already, when the Samajwadi Party chief was debating on whether or not to support the UPA government on the nuclear pact with the US, it was Kalam’s expert opinion that he had relied on. On 12 June 2012, a few days before the presidential elections, we got information that ‘Netaji’ (as Mulayam is popularly known) wanted to talk to the former president around ten that night. I was in the office and was asked to stay back to attend the call. The call came exactly at 10 p.m. Kalam instructed me to stay near the telephone and translate for him what the SP chief was saying in Hindi. What Mulayam said was, ‘Hum kal aap ka naam propose karne ja rahe hain. Aap tayyar hain?’ Mulayam wanted to know if Kalam was agreeable to his name being announced by the Samajwadi Party and Trinamool Congress as their presidential candidate the next day. Kalam replied, in his style of Hindi, ‘Achcha hai … Ready. OK.’ That was the brief conversation they had.
The next day, however, events took a different turn, resulting in big drama. What transpired that night is a mystery. But at a press conference that day Mulayam announced that his party was supporting Pranab Mukherjee for President. Some scribes asked him about his previous support of Kalam. He snapped, ‘Who is Kalam? Who told you the name Kalam?’ At this point, without uttering a word, Mamata Banerjee walked out of the press conference and went straight to the airport. She understood that she had been ditched by Mulayam. I learnt later that she never spoke to him again after that.
A little while later, Kalam received another message through one of his secretary friends. Apparently, it was a message from someone whose party favoured the other candidate asking Kalam to withdraw. Kalam did not react or respond. He had clearly decided to keep out of the presidential race altogether.
(This is an edited excerpt from Kalam: The Untold Story (Bloomsbury, 224 pages, Rs 499) by RK Prasad. Prasad was APJ Abdul Kalam’s private secretary)