He had a rare trust for his associates who had practically no personal life. He had a brush with the Public Accounts Committee (1996) who had selected an audit para castigating a missile laboratory severely. Despite our best efforts Kalam refused to approve a reply which was to be sent to the PAC Secretariat. Inderjit Gupta, the Chairman, opened the discussion by pointing out that they all recognize Dr. Kalam’s contribution as a scientist; but he cannot defy parliamentary convention. All eyes were on Kalam. Completely unruffled he asked Dr. Saraswat, presently Member NITI Aayog, to make a presentation on the activities of DRDO. All MPs sat glued completely enraptured and at the end of it the applause was deafening; I saw Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi nudging Inderjit Gupta to join the chorus. Kalam was indeed a charmer; he made a brief intervention & said, what is of utmost priority for him is that India improves its self reliance in critical technology significantly. For him what are at stake are the faith of his countrymen that he will deliver and the trust of his associates who work for the success of these strategic programs unflinchingly. He will neither betray the country nor his fully dedicated associates.
Kalam was a blind acolyte of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai and space was his first odyssey in life. I noticed in 1995 that the blazer that he was wearing had patches all over and looked completely frayed. When I asked him as to why he was not going for a change, he recounted how it was gifted by Sarabhai when he was going to the USA for the first time during winter. He said in Delhi’s blustery winter and its mercurial men, he feels very assured in this sartorial protection! When I interviewed him in 2011 for my book on India’s Offset Policy and Self Reliance, I saw the same blazer and the glint in his eyes connected us to our old conversation!
Kalam had this habit of getting interesting paper cuttings from the colleagues every day. He used to send them back next day with his illegible scribbling. Once my son sent him (1996) an article on how the Ridley Turtles were dying in great numbers during missile test firing at Chandipur. The cutting came back a week later with a typed reply which said “Science & nature have to coexist. We have decided to stop test firing during the breeding season; it’s a suboptimal solution; hope you will bear with us”. Dr. Kalam came to my office in 2010 when I introduced Spandy to him; he said “Oh, the Ridley Turtle Guy”!
Kalam, even before became the President, had a wonderful global connect. I recall how one of our Industrial Employees from NSTL, Vizag during a test firing in the Cavitation Tunnel at Kirghizstan; lost his life. It was a Saturday & our Ambassador had thrown up his hands saying that the body can be sent to India only on Monday. The family was understandably distraught. Kalam came to know of it while in midst of a meeting. He recalled that the Prime Minister of Kirgizstan was possibly Dr. Apas Jumagulov, an old buddy and Professor of Physics whom he had met in Moscow in 1988. Lo & Behold the connection worked real wonders and the mortal remains of a modest industrial employee came in Kirgy PM’s aircraft, reached Vizag in few hours’ time. And Kalam was there to receive the casket. No wonder he is called the People’s President. It’s such an irony that the hoi polloi at his old residence at 10, Rajaji Marg were kept at a distance; so that the VIPs have ‘elite darshan’. So much for our Rule of Law!
Dr. Kalam had two dreams; one to improve India’s Self Reliance Index (SRI) in Defence Acquisition from 30% to 70%, and to “Provide Urban Amenities to Rural Areas” (PURA). We have hardly moved on the first mandate. He told me during out interaction in 2011 that there is a lack of political will for self reliance. As regards PURA the recently released Socio Economic and Caste Census (2011) adequate testimony to the dismal picture of our rural landscape; where 70% are in casual employment, 36% are illiterates and only 4% have access to credit through Kisan Card. Our Jan Dhan scheme masks these grim realities.
Kalam lived a very frugal life, was extremely erudite; he went to the Rashrapati Bhawan with two suitcases, and left it without any additional weight. Indians of every hue tried to reach him; parents with the painting of their children; poets with their musings and the marginalized with their outstretched hands which he clasped warmly. He walked briskely, often out pacing youngsters like us. In a sense he brought visions of the Dandi March! It was, therefore, ironical to see that he had to be helped to get up at Shillong.
Dr. Kalam never wore his religion on his sleeve; nor did he flinch to call a spade a spade as he did in the ‘office of profit’ bill case. He new for sure, drunk in the elixir of populism, he would be denied a second term. He was a tad bitter about it but the loss was that of a nation. Otherwise you won’t find a photograph where the most venerated Air Force officer Marshal of the Air, Arjan Singh at the age of 96 would rise from his wheel chair to salute the mortal remains of a gentle colossus who “did not have the feet of the clay”. When I spoke to him last fortnight inviting him to KIIT International School, Bhubaneswar he said it would be during winter.
As Robert Frost would say
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But you have promises to keep,
And miles to go before we sleep,
And miles to go before we sleep”