When I wanted to meet him, I could not. And when I did not want to, I met him.
The first time I reached out to former President APJ Abdul Kalam, it was for inviting him to be the chief guest at the Dataquest IT Person of the Year Awards function in 2005. While we had covered him in our magazines, and written about him a couple of times earlier in his various roles at DRDO and as the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Prime Minister. I was told that if you write to Kalam, you get a reply without fail.
That did not happen, and I sense that old babu’s still controlled the way his office worked. However, after repeated phone calls, I was able to get across to one of his secretaries. One of the first things the person on the other end of the phone line said, “If the President accepts your invitation, he will make a PPT”, as if to shrug me off. When I told him that CyberMedia and Dataquest was all about computers and PPTs, he sounded re-assured. Finally, Kalam’s office declined our invitation, but in the process many of us started to get interested in many things, new things actually, that Kalam was bringing into Rashtrapati Bhavan.
A strong believer in the power of information technology and communications, Kalam made a very strong pitch for it in many areas of national development. In his book India 2020, he identified 5 areas of core competence for integrated action, and one of them was information and communications technology. He passionately supported Open Source software over proprietary, and said use of free software on a large scale will bring benefits of IT to the common man.
A couple of years later, when Kalam was no longer the President of India, I got a call from my office saying that our weekly Doordarshan show ‘eKranti’ is being launched by Kalam. I had to pick up my mother from the Railway Station, and was therefore reluctant to go for the function. As my boss insisted that I must go and attend as the Dataquest editor, I reached the venue, albeit a bit late.
Kalam was surrounded by almost everyone of those 150 guests, and they were asking him all sorts of questions from technology, to business to politics. I was also trying to meet him and talk to him, and finally I got my chance. As soon as I introduced myself and was about to ask him a ‘tough’ question about why our political leadership was so IT illiterate, president Kalam gently held my hand and advised me “You should also come out with a magazine for school students, that will be a big service to the country”. I was stumped.
And I had got my answer to the question I had not even asked.
Kalam’s faith in information technology can be gauged from this speech that he gave at an Indian Express function a few weeks after ours. “The total land area of India is around 3.3 million square km with 7,000 km of coastline. The altitude of the country varies from the sea level to 8,600 meters. The entire area is spread into deserts, hilltops, mountains, sea shores, islands, valleys and plains. Out of the billion-plus population in the country, 70 per cent live in 6,00,000 villages. We need a societal transformation and sustainable development for our growth. These two aspects are realisable in a time-bound manner only through a knowledge society, which alone will empower the entire nation. India has the potential to become a knowledge society. Electronic and knowledge connectivity is the key to realize this goal. Connecting a billion people throws up multiple challenges”.
I thought this speech must originally be for the Dataquest function that we had invited him for.