During his innumerable interaction with students, President A. P. J. Abdul Kalam was once confronted with a question by a student, about India's population problem. He immediately replied smilingly to the student, “You are asking the question to the wrong person. I am totally innocent.” President Kalam lived all his life as a bachelor but of course, he later gave a serious reply.
This anecdote among others form the corpus of S.M. Khan’s bestselling book ‘The People’s President: A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’, which was released in India recently. The book captures the five-year tenure of Dr. Kalam as President of India and the indelible imprint that the father of Indian missile technology left behind, which no president before him, or since, has left on the Indian Presidency.
S.M. Khan worked as Press Secretary with Dr. Kalam during his entire term (2002-2007) and that gave him some rare insight into the life of the great man who had a multifaceted personality — a statesman, a visionary, scientist, teacher, administrator and, above all, a good human being.
Prior to his joining the President Office, Mr. Khan had an illustrious long stint with Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), India’s premier investigating agency as its Deputy Principal Information Officer and then as Director, Information from 1989-2002. He was largely responsible for bringing the agency closer to the people through his close interaction with national and international media and by his articulation.
Television news was making big grounds during that time in India and Dr. Kalam, an avid listener to news, was watching the development taking place in the CBI as well. Perhaps it was because of his diction that Khan’s name figured in the panel of names suggested for the Press Secretary post when Dr. Kalam was officially elected as the President on 18th July, 2002.
There were two panels of names prepared, the first by the Indian Diplomatic Services and one by the Indian Information Service. “I was tipped by the then Cabinet Secretary that my name was mentioned in the list that had been forwarded to Dr. Kalam,” says Mr. Khan
After Dr. Kalam was formally sworn in as President on 25th July, S.M. Khan was informed that his name had been selected as the next Press Secretary by the President. S. M. Khan joined the President’s team on 5 August.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down for a chat with Mr. Khan and began by asking him how was his first interaction with the new president.
“The first day I met Dr. Kalam in office was momentous. He called me and opened his heart. ‘I want to bring Rashtrapati Bhavan closer to the common man especially the youth and students. I want to open its gate to the poor and deprived’, the president said. He was a humanist to the core,” recalls Mr. Khan.
Then began his unending journey of meeting common man on streets, meeting students, teaching them, making them ask questions, not only in the President House but all over India wherever he travelled. He would often stop enroute on his journey and give surprise visit to schools that even did not have proper building.
Dr. Kalam’s vision was for youth who would shape a new India for which he even prepared a blue print. He was equally at ease with students, with Members of Parliament, with politicians, with technocrats. He could interact with anyone.
In fact, Dr. Kalam’s style of functioning was very democratic. On any issues he would take opinion of all his senior officers and then make his own decision. He would deeply study each and every issue that came up to him.
Not many would know that Dr. Kalam once contemplated resigning his presidency. It was the dissolution of Bihar Assembly in 2005, which he ordered after the Union Cabinet recommended following the report by Bihar Governor Buta Singh. The dissolution was sharply criticised by the Supreme Court of India. The court ruled that Singh had acted in haste and misled the federal cabinet because he did not want a particular party claiming to form the government, to come to power.
Dr. Kalam was deeply disturbed but was convinced by all of us that his role as constitutional head did not give him the space but to accept the Union Cabinet decision. Even the then Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, pleaded with him. However Buta Singh faxed his resignation as Governor to him immediately thereafter.
A day before he demitted office in 2007, Dr. Kalam visited India Islamic centre, perhaps his last official function and gave a memorable speech that still resonates in the literary and political circles: “I came to Rashtrapati Bhavan with just two bags and I will leave with these two bags, which contain most of my books”. That was Kalam, the People’s President.
Three days before his death last year, S.M. Khan vividly recalls his last meeting with Dr. Kalam in New Delhi. Among the various issues that he discussed was also a promise to join him in Rameswaram the following year, when his elder brother would be celebrating his 100th birthday. However, Dr. Kalam did not live to see the day.
“I traveled to Rameswaram to keep my promise and had a happy reunion with his elder brother whose100th birthday was celebrated the way Dr. Kalam had desired,” said Mr. Khan. He added, “I was surprised to see that every day thousands of people visit his grave to pay their respects and also visit the museum that has been set up at his ancestral home.
The People’s President: A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’, penned by Mr. Khan has been a terrific hit because Dr. Kalam still commands such a huge following in all parts of India. The book has been launched in several Indian states.
Holding a Master degree in Laws, Mr. Khan is a senior Indian Civil Service officer and has served in various capacities ; Director, Information of
By S. AH RIZVI