Former President Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam (October 15, 1931 - July 27, 2015) died at a hospital in Shillong, Meghalaya. He reportedly collapsed on stage at the Indian Institute of Management in Shillong, where he had gone to deliver a lecture. Doctors say he suffered from a massive cardiac arrest.

In this extract from Turning Points: A Journey through Challenges, he describes the events leading up to his becoming the 11th President of India.

The morning of 10 June 2002 was like any other day in the beautiful environment of Anna University, where I had been working since December 2001. I had been enjoying my time in the large, tranquil campus, working with professors and inquisitive students on research projects and teaching. The authorized strength of my class was sixty students, but during every lecture, the classroom had more than 350 students and there was no way one could control the number of participants. My purpose was to understand the aspirations of the youth, to share my experiences from my many national missions and to evolve approaches for the application of technology for societal transformation through a specially designed course of ten lectures for postgraduate students.

What do I mean by national mission? I am referring to the space launch vehicle, SLV-3, the IGMDP (Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme), the 1998 nuclear tests, and the India 2020 report prepared by TIFAC (Technology Information, Forecasting and Assessment Council). All in all, these had a measurable impact on development and setting the growth trajectory of the nation. The objective of the SLV-3 programme was to launch a satellite indigenously for placing the 40 kg Rohini satellite in near-earth orbit. The satellite was intended for making ionospheric measurements. The IGMDP was intended to fulfil the need for force multiplier missile systems for national security, both tactical and strategic. The Agni V missile is its latest success. The nuclear tests were held on 11 and 13 May 1998. With these, India became a nuclear weapon state. TIFAC resulted in generating the road map for India to transform it into an economically developed nation by 2020.

It was my ninth lecture, entitled ‘Vision to Mission’, and it included several case studies. When I finished, I had to answer numerous questions and my class extended from a one-hour teaching session to two hours. After the lecture, I returned to my office, as on any other day, and had lunch with a group of research students. Prasangam, the cook, served us delicious food with a lot of smiles. After lunch, I prepared for my next class, and in the evening, I returned to my rooms.

As I was walking back, Prof A Kalanidhi, the vice chancellor of Anna University, joined me. He said that my office had received many telephone calls during the day and someone was frantically trying to get in touch with me. As soon as I reached my rooms, I found the telephone was ringing. When I answered, a voice on the other end said, ‘The prime minister wants to talk to you.’

While I was waiting to be connected to the PM, Chandrababu Naidu, who was the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, called me on my cellphone. He told me to expect an important call from the prime minister, adding, ‘Please do not say no.’

While I was talking to Naidu, the call from Atal Bihari Vajpayee materialized.

He said, ‘Kalam, how is your academic life?’

'It is fantastic,’ I answered. Vajpayee continued, ‘We have some very important news for you. Just now, I am coming from a special meeting attended by leaders of all the coalition parties. We have decided unanimously that the nation needs you as its Rashtrapati. I have to announce this tonight. I would like to have your concurrence. I need only a “Yes”, not a “No”.’ Vajpayee, I might mention, was heading the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), a coalition of almost two dozen parties, and it was not always easy getting unanimity.

I hadn’t even had time to sit down after entering the room. Different images of the future appeared before me. One was that of being always surrounded by students and teachers. In the other, I was addressing Parliament with a vision for the nation. A decision matrix was evolving in my mind. I said, ‘Vajpayeeji (as I normally addressed him), can you give me two hours’ time to decide? It is also necessary that there be a consensus among all political parties on my nomination as presidential candidate.’

Vajpayee said, ‘After you agree, we will work for a consensus.’

Over the next two hours, I must have made thirty telephone calls to my close friends. Among them were people in academia and friends in the civil services and in politics too. One view that came across was that I was enjoying an academic life, which is my passion and love, and I shouldn’t disturb it. The second view was that this was an opportunity to put forth the India 2020 vision in front of the nation and Parliament, and that I must jump at it. Exactly after two hours, I was connected to the prime minister. I said, ‘Vajpayeeji, I consider this to be a very important mission and I would like to be an all-party candidate.’

He said, ‘Yes, we will work for it, thank you.’

The news travelled very fast indeed. Within 15 minutes, the news of my choice as presidential candidate was known throughout the country. Immediately, I was bombarded with an unmanageable number of telephone calls, my security was intensified and a large number of visitors gathered in my room.

The same day, Vajpayee consulted with Mrs Sonia Gandhi, the opposition leader, about the choice of candidate. When Mrs Gandhi asked whether the NDA’s choice was final, the prime minister responded in the affirmative. After due consultation with her party members and coalition partners, Mrs Gandhi announced the support of the Indian National Congress (INC) to my candidature on 17 June 2002. I would have loved to get the support of the Left parties also but they decided to nominate their own candidate. As soon as I agreed to be a candidate for the presidency, a huge number of write-ups began to appear about me. Many questions were raised by the media. In essence, they were asking, how could a non-political person, particularly a scientist, become president of the nation?


On 18 June, at my first press conference after filing the nomination papers for my candidacy as president, journalists asked many questions regarding the Gujarat issue (the state had been racked by riots and there were concerns about how these were handled), Ayodhya (the Ram Janambhoomi issue was always in the news), the nuclear tests and about my plans in Rashtrapati Bhavan. I mentioned that India needed an educated political class with compassion as the cornerstone of decision making. On the Ayodhya issue, I mentioned that what was needed was education, economic development and respect for human beings. With economic development, societal differences would also reduce. I also pledged that I would maintain simplicity amidst the pomp and glory of Rashtrapati Bhavan. As president, on any complex issue, I would consult the country’s leading constitutional experts. Decisions on issues such as President’s Rule would be made on the basis of what people needed, rather than on what a few people wanted.

When I returned from Chennai to my flat in Asiad Village in Delhi on 10 July the preparations were in full swing. Pramod Mahajan of the Bharatiya Janata Party was my election agent. I set up a camp office at the flat. It was  not a large flat but it had a certain flexibility. I set up a visitors’ room, the conference hall was made functional, and later even an electronic camp office was set up. All data from then on was transmitted electronically. A letter was drafted for MPs – Lok Sabha as well as Rajya Sabha, so close to 800 in all – giving them my vision as president and asking them to vote for me. This was based on Mahajan’s suggestion that I could send the letters without personally meeting the members of the electoral college from each state. As it turned out, I was declared elected on 18 July with a handsome margin.

There were appointments with visitors, of whom there was a stream all through the day, and interviews with media besides my own correspondence and travel. I enjoyed interacting with children and when there was time I would listen to their responses on various issues. Flat No. 833 in Asiad Village became a beehive of activity. Just drawing up the guest list for the swearing-in ceremony on 25 July was an exercise in itself. The Central Hall of Parliament can only accommodate 1,000 people. Aside from the MPs, office-bearers of the two Houses, bureaucrats from the home and other ministries, and guests of the outgoing president, KR Narayanan, there would be room only for a 100 guests. This we expanded to 150 or so. Who all would be in this 150 posed a problem. Family guests alone numbered thirty-seven. My old physics teacher, Prof Chinnadurai, was there, as was Prof KV Pandalai of the Madras Institute of Technology, Pakshi Venkatasubramaniam Sastrigal, chief priest of the Rameswaram temple, Imam Nurul Khuda, of the Rameswaram mosque, Rev AG Leonard, priest of the Rameswaram church, and the famous eye specialist, Dr G Venkataswamy, who started the Aravind Eye Institute. Also among the guests was the dancer Sonal Mansingh, as were industrialists, journalists, personal friends. In the guest list, uniquely, there were 100 children from all the states of the country, for whom there was a separate enclosure. They were put under the care of a senior aide. It was a hot day but everybody came formally dressed to attend the ceremony in the historic Central Hall.

Excerpted with permission from Turning Points: A Journey through Challenges, APJ Abdul Kalam HarperCollins India.