My visit to Gujarat
One of the pillars of development that I have thought a lot about is that we have to create a nation where poverty has been totally eradicated and illiteracy removed. Alongside, we need to evolve a society where crimes against women and children are absent and none in the society feels alienated. These thoughts were prominent in my mind during my visit to Gujarat in August 2002, which I took up as my first major task immediately after becoming President.
The State had been hit by riots a few months earlier, and their impact had left thousands of lives in disarray. It was an important and sensitive task, because it took place under unique circumstances, in a politically charged atmosphere. I decided that my mission was not to look at what had happened, not to look at what was happening, but to focus on what should be done. What had happened was already a point of discussion by the judiciary and the Parliament and continues to be discussed even now.
As no President had ever visited an area under such circumstances, many questioned the necessity of my visit to the state at this juncture. At the ministry and bureaucratic level, it was suggested that I should not venture into Gujarat at that point of time. One of the main reasons was political. However, I made up my mind that I would go and preparations were in full swing at Rashtrapati Bhavan for my first visit as President.
The Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, asked me only one question, ‘Do you consider going to Gujarat at this time essential?’ I told the PM, ‘I consider it an important duty so that I can be of some use to remove the pain, and also accelerate the relief activities, and bring about a unity of minds, which is my mission, as I stressed in my address during the swearing-in ceremony.’…
I visited twelve areas — three relief camps and nine riot-hit locations where the losses had been high... I remember one scene, when I visited a relief camp. A six-year-old boy came up to me, held both my hands and said, ‘Rashtrapati ji , I want my mother and father.’ I was speechless. There itself, I held a quick meeting with the District Collector. The Chief Minister also assured me that the boy’s education and welfare would be taken care of by the government.
All through my visit only one thought occupied my mind… Should not development be our only agenda? Any citizen following any faith has the fundamental right to live happily. No one has the right to endanger the unity of minds, because unity of minds is the lifeline of our country, and makes our country truly unique.
After all what is justice, what is democracy? Every citizen in the country has a right to live with dignity; every citizen has a right to aspire for distinction. To access the large number of opportunities, through just and fair means, in order to attain that dignity and distinction is what democracy is all about. That is what our Constitution is all about. And that is what makes life wholesome and worth living in a true and vibrant democracy, the essence of which is tolerance for people’s belief systems and lifestyles…
The increasing intolerance for the views of others and increasing contempt for the way of life or religion of others, or the expression of these differences through lawless violence against people cannot be justified in any context. All of us have to work hard and do everything to protect the rights of every individual …
Returning the Office of Profit Bill
Broadly, the Parliament (Prevention of Disqualification) Act 1959, stipulates that certain offices of profit under the government shall not disqualify the holders thereof for being chosen as, or for being, Members of Parliament. During mid 2006, I received a number of complaints from MPs about certain fellow members holding office of profit. I had to deal with these complaints. I sent these to the Chief Election Commissioner to study and conduct an inquiry wherever considered essential … Meanwhile I received the Office of Profit Bill from the Parliament for approval.
I studied the Bill and found that it had many anomalies. In the proposed Office of Profit Bill, I did not find a systematic approach towards deciding the question of what constituted an office of profit. Instead exemption was given to only the existing offices which were occupied by MPs. I also discussed the anomalies and my concerns with three former Chief Justices of the Supreme Court. I prepared a letter in consultation with my team and the three CJIs …
The Office of Profit Bill was not sent by the Cabinet for my approval but by Parliament. Hence, I returned the Bill to the Secretary-General of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha for reconsideration by both the Houses of Parliament. This was the first time in the history of Parliament or Rashtrapati Bhavan that a President returned a Bill for reconsideration….
The Bill was reconsidered and sent back for my approval. The Prime Minister met me and he was surprised, as I normally send the approved Bill the next day. Why were weeks rolling by with no action taken, he wondered. I said some action is needed from Parliament and I have not heard anything about it. The Prime Minister said the Parliament has already decided on the constitution of a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) for going into all aspects of the Office of Profit Bill as per my suggestions. …
I was on tour to the North-East and … received a message that the formation of a JPC on the Office of Profit Bill had been approved by Parliament. Once I got the confirmation about the action by Parliament, I immediately signed the Office of Profit Bill. After a few months, Parliament approved the JPC report which was not complete and did not address the problem which I had suggested. Parliament has to deal with such issues with care, otherwise it would be construed that the highest body of the nation is promoting wrong practices which may set a national trend in different echelons of the government…
Recently, we saw two fasting movements against corruption and many more may get inspired. I was asking myself, why are such movements taking place in our democratic country. This is basically due to the dilution of standards by Parliament itself …
On the death penalty
One of the more difficult tasks for me as President was to decide on the issue of confirming capital punishment awarded by the courts after exhausting all processes of appeals. As a substantial number of cases have been pending in Rashtrapati Bhavan for many years, it is one inherited task that no President would feel happy about. I thought I should get all these cases examined from a normal citizen’s point of view in terms of the crime, intensity of the crime and the social and financial status of the individuals who were convicted and awarded capital punishment. This study revealed to my surprise that almost all the cases which were pending had a social and economic bias. This gave me an impression that we were punishing the person who was least involved in the enmity and who did not have a direct motive for committing the crime. Of course there was one case where I found that the lift operator had in fact committed the crime of raping and killing the girl without doubt. In that case I affirmed the sentence…
We are all the creations of God. I am not sure a human system or a human being is competent to take away a life based on artificial and created evidence.
On Sonia Gandhi as Prime Minister
One of the responsibilities of the President is to appoint the Prime Minister after every general election or whenever an occasion arises for change of the incumbent. On these occasions the President has to satisfy himself there is a party or a coalition which has the required number of members to form a stable government. The process of selection becomes more complex when there is more than one contender laying claim to government in view of none of the parties having a clear majority in the House. In this context, the 2004 election was an interesting event. The elections were over, the results had been announced and none of the parties had the strength to form the government on their own.
The Congress party had the largest number of members elected. In spite of that, three days had passed and no party or coalition came forward to form the government. It was a cause of concern for me and I asked my secretaries and rushed a letter to the leader of the largest party — in this case the Congress — to come forward and stake the claim for forming the government.
I was told that Sonia Gandhi was meeting me at 12.15 in the afternoon of 18 May. She came in time but instead of coming alone she came with Dr. Manmohan Singh and had a discussion with me. She said that she had the requisite numbers but she did not bring the letter of support signed by party functionaries. She would come with the letters of support on the 19th, she said. I asked her why do you postpone. We can even finish it this afternoon. She went away. Later I received a message that she would meet me in the evening, at 8.15 p.m.
While this communication was in progress, I had a number of emails and letters coming from individuals, organisations and parties that I should not allow Mrs Sonia Gandhi to become the Prime Minister of our country. I had passed on these mails and letters to various agencies in the government for their information without making any remarks. 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.
At the allotted time, 8.15 p.m., Mrs Gandhi came to Rashtrapati Bhavan along with Dr. Manmohan Singh. In this meeting after exchanging pleasantries, she showed me the letters of support from various parties. Thereupon, I said that is welcome. The Rashtrapati Bhavan is ready for the swearing-in ceremony at the time of your choice. That is when she told me that she would like to nominate Dr. Manmohan Singh, who was the architect of economic reforms in 1991 and a trusted lieutenant of the Congress party with an impeccable image, as the Prime Minister. This was definitely a surprise to me and the Rashtrapati Bhavan Secretariat had to rework the letter appointing Dr. Manmohan Singh as the Prime Minister and inviting him to form the government at the earliest.
Finally, the swearing-in took place on 22 May with Dr. Manmohan Singh and sixty-seven Ministers in the splendid Ashoka Hall.
I breathed a sigh of relief that this important task had finally been done. However, I did puzzle over why no party had staked a claim for three days.
(Excerpted with permission fromA.P.J. Abdul Kalam, Turning Points: A Journey Through Challenges. Published by HarperCollins, 2012.)
Exclusive extracts from A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s memoir of his presidency