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Exclusive: Why did Missile Man ditch Vajyapee’s cabinet offer?

Missile Man

APJ Abdul Kalam at the India Habitat Centre Annual Lecture earlier this year

By Dr APJ Abdul Kalam (Missile Man)

There’s an interesting story behind the nuclear tests in 1998. Let me go back to May 1996. Elections were held that year. I had met Narasimha Rao just a few days before the announcement of the results. He said to me, ‘Kalam, be ready with your team for the nuclear tests. I am going to Tirupati. You wait for my authorization to go ahead with the tests. The DRDO-DAE teams must be ready for action.’ His visit to Triupati was, of course, to seek God’s blessings for a good result. However, the 1996 election result was quite different from what he had anticipated. The Congress tally came down sharply, to 136 seats. The BJP and its alliance came to power but only for two weeks, led by Vajpayeeji, before the third front with H.D. Deve Gowda as PM took over. However, in the two weeks that the Vajpayee government was there, it tried very hard to carry through the nuclear tests. It was 9 o’clock at night. I got a call from 7 Race Course Road requesting that I immediately meet the new prime minister and Rao, the outgoing one. Rao asked me to brief Vajpayeeji on the details of the nuclear programme, so that a smooth handover of this important activity to the new government could take place. About two years later, Vajpayeeji returned as PM. On 15 March 1998, around midnight, I got a phone call from Vajpayeeji. He said he was finalizing the list of ministers and wanted to induct me into his Cabinet. I told him that I needed time to think about it. He asked me to see him the next morning at 9 a.m. So, in the middle of the night, I assembled a few of my friends. We debated up to 3 a.m. whether I should join the Cabinet. The general opinion was that since I was fully involved in two missions of national importance and these were in advanced stages and nearing good results, I should not leave them and enter the political system. The next morning I went to 7 Safdarjung Road, where the PM was staying. He received me in his drawing room and first offered me home-made sweets. I then told him, ‘I and my team are busy with two important programmes. One is readying the Agni missile system and another is bringing to a close the nuclear programme through a series of tests in partnership with the DAE (Department of Atomic Energy). I feel that by involving myself full-time with these two programmes, I will be contributing more to the nation. Please permit me to continue.’
‘I appreciate your feelings, go ahead, God bless you,’ Vajpayeeji responded. Many things happened after that. The Agni missile system was readied for induction, five nuclear tests were conducted consecutively, and India became a nuclear-weapon state. My declining to accept the Cabinet position enabled me to contribute to two major national programmes that gave spectacular results to the nation.

(Excerpts from The Righteous Life: The Very Best of A.P.J. Abdul Kalam with the permission of Rupa Publications)

Missile Man

Book cover by Rupa



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