When in June 2002, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee came up with the inspired but unconventional choice of a modest and an unassuming technocrat for the post of the President of India, the entire nation, in a rare show of unanimity, rejoiced at the move.
And what a splendid choice it turned out to be by the NDA government.
Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen (APJ) Abdul Kalam was clearly India’s first, and so far it’s only egalitarian President. He was unfettered by the trappings of the office. He mingled with the masses, unencumbered by the Presidential protocols that lesser men and woman who have occupied the post revelled in. He nurtured a vision of India, however naively conceptualised it may have been. He also earnestly believed that he had an achievable action plan to translate his vision of transforming India into a ‘developed country’ by 2020.
A man of boundless energy, Kalam travelled through the length and breadth of the country and reached out to millions of school and college children. His inspirational speechifying, delivered in a genial head-masterly approach, presented the young minds with an uplifting vision of our country. Shorn of any sophistry and rooted in the deep love of his country, his speeches were lapped by adulating students.
Kalam radiated positive energy and always talked passionately about India’s enormous but untapped potential. He sincerely believed that spreading optimism would drown the voices of the professional poverty purveyors and doomsday prophets. He argued for leveraging technology for solving the nation’s problem and wanted to build a militarily mighty India.
Kalam was born to a boat-owning Muslim household in the fishing hamlet of Rameswaram. Kalam’s early life is, in a way, a great tribute to the innately Indic syncretism. A Hindu Brahmin family and a Christian teacher played an instrumental role in his formative years leading up to his aeronautical engineering degree at the Madras Institute of Technology.
By the time he was appointed as Chief Scientific Adviser to the Ministry of Defence in 2000, Kalam had already blazed a glorious trial in a distinguished career that spawned across domains of both space and defence. By all accounts, he was an outstanding technology manager but certainly not India’s greatest scientist which many mistakenly believe he was.
As its mission director, he played a pivotal role in the design, development and launch of Satellite Launch Vehicle-3, India’s largely indigenous satellite launch program. He then moved to the defence establishment to spearhead India’s ambitious Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme. It was under this path-breaking program that India developed its various missile systems like the Prithvi and the Agni series.
Kalam’s outstanding strength was his ability to program manage large-scale space and defence projects involving multiple stakeholders and navigate through complex ecosystems that cut across various government departments, research labs, factories, suppliers, vendors, production units and academia. He was a people manager par excellence with an ability to motivate team members across project hierarchy.
It was also remarkable how Kalam operationalised his belief that other collateral benefits should accrue from defence system development projects. A custom fabricated device for polio patients, heavily customised artificial limbs for the physically challenged, composite Compressed Natural Gas cylinders for automobiles were among many life-changing material innovations powered by him.
It was not that Kalam was without his share of critics. A significant section of India’s Left establishment and the Congress party, especially under Sonia Gandhi, despised him deeply. Insinuations ranged from suggestions that he often resorted to the patriotic card to deflect project failures, that he lacked a doctorate from a premier scientific institution that somehow apparently made him unworthy of career progression he achieved, and that he dutifully played the Model Muslim as demanded by Sangh Parivar’s specification. Congress party’s hostility to Kalam was personal as well as philosophical. Unconfirmed accounts suggest that he may have played a role in derailing Sonia Gandhi’s ascension to prime minister’s post.
Kalam epitomised the antithesis of a certain perverse version of secularism, established as intellectual consensus, by the Nehruvian establishment. He never wore his minority tag, did not subscribe to the “perpetually under siege and forever prosecuted” theory about religious minorities. He codenamed various space and missile program using profoundly Hindu imagery. He played the Veena, was inspired by work of the great Hindu nationalist poet from Tamil Nadu Bharathiar, quoted copiously from Bhagavad Gita and was an avid listener of Carnatic Music. Add to it the fact that he was a lifelong vegetarian, a teetotaller and non-smoker.
Kalam’s simple-minded worldview, given the complexity of India’s problems, may have been infuriating at times. But millions of Indians, especially in small towns and cities of India, looked up to him as an inspiration. Because they could relate with this simpleton with an uncomplicated worldview. He talked to them in the idiom and language that they understood. Kalam fired their imagination. Tell us one another individual, perhaps with the exception of Narendra Modi, who has done this with any degree of success.
Any assessment of Kalam needs to be performed within the framework of the largely ceremonial role of the President of India. And in such role, he was a trailblazer, head and shoulders above any other holder of the office, a choice made easy by the fact that it was mostly petty provincial politicians or notorious time servers of Nehru-Gandhi Dynasty who occupied it.
He was India’s greatest President and will be so for a long time.
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