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Opinion » musings

Posted at: Aug 3, 2015, 12:35 AM; last updated: Aug 2, 2015, 10:21 PM (IST)

The Prez who wanted to be a billionaire

THE National Defence College (NDC) course is a defining experience for those who participate in this 11-month programme in Delhi. What makes it  unique is the conducive environment, varied exposure and enormous peer group learning. Over half course members are Brigadiers and equivalents, drawn from the three services, nominated through a tough selection process. Joint Secretary-level officers from the civil services constitute around 15 per cent of the course strength, with military officers from friendly foreign countries making up the rest. Around 80 of us attended the NDC 43 in 2003.

As the course draws to an end, there are number of courtesy calls and ‘at homes’. The most significant of these is the call on the President at Rashtrapati Bhavan. There was added excitement, given the extraordinary credentials of then President APJ Abdul Kalam — a visionary, eminent scientist and scholar; above all, an epitome of humanity. 

A detailed briefing was organised by the Secretary NDC, covering the minutest protocol details, especially the lineup for the group photograph. One foreign officer who was insistent on taking both his wives for the function was firmly directed to drop one, keeping in view the propriety of the occasion. He was also politely apprised about the marital status of the Supreme Commander. 

We arrived at Rashtrapati Bhavan and waited to be ushered in. The group photograph was the first event. We took our places. The President made a ceremonial entry and posed for the photograph. After introduction to the faculty members, informal interaction followed. The President was soon surrounded by the course members and their spouses. 

Some of us stood in a corner, awaiting our turn. Suddenly we saw him peeling away and heading towards us. Moving closer, he queried inquisitively: “Are you all single like me?” He appeared amused at our spontaneous response; all claiming to be happily married. Stepping towards me, he asked: “What is the role of a soldier?” Momentarily, I felt stumped. Seeing me perplexed, he repeated the question. This gave me the time to respond. I replied: “Sir, a soldier’s prime duty is to defend the motherland at all cost and be a role model for society.” 

 From the President’s smiling nod, it was obvious that I had got it right. He explained that while every military safeguards its nation, how many can claim to be model citizens! The President went on to amplify: “It is here that an Indian soldier can be immensely proud. India as a nation reveres its soldiers, looks upon them as role models, persons of unblemished character and custodians of the highest values. Our nation goes into shock when there is abrasion on the part of a soldier. All military persons, whether in or out of uniform, must live up to this trust. They should be stakeholders in building a strong nation, so that all Indians can realise their aspirations.”

The President was gracious to overshoot the stipulated 60-minute interaction. Just as he was departing, out of sheer magnanimity, he asked if anyone had a question. A lady jumped the protocol: “President Sir, what is your dream?” He paused and with a broad smile responded: “To be a billionaire.” There was silence, which soon turned into a thunderous applause when he whispered, “by making each one of my billion countrymen smile.” 

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