Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen ‘A P J’ Abdul Kalam 1931–2015
A tribute to A P J Abdul Kalam
A great Indian has passed away, rather unexpectedly. He was a hero and a role model for millions. But he was anathema to our pseudo-left illiberals, who reviled him for everything from his advocacy of a strong and self-reliant India to trivial things such as his vegetarianism. Read the late Praful Bidwai, who was a Communist beyond redemption, on June 23, 2002, on a site called antiwar.com: “Mr Kalam has only two public faces: devotion to militarism, and his image as a Muslim, which fits the stereotype constructed by the Hindu chauvinist core of India’s present ruling coalition, represented by the BJP. Unlike most Indians, and the vast majority of Indian Muslims, Mr Kalam is a vegetarian. He believes more in Hindu scriptures than the Koran. He takes pride in knowing Sanskrit but no Urdu. He plays the rudra veena and reads the Bhagvad Gita.”
While genuine tributes are being paid in various fora, the same pseudo-left illiberals who could not stand him in life have suddenly started trying to steal his legacy. It is therefore not only very important that we honour and revere President Kalam, but also that we do so for the right reasons. We must not only understand what he was, but equally important, what he was not. As someone who was very close to him for several decades, I felt I should put forth my own views in this regard.
Let me begin by stating my own “credentials” for writing this article. I first met President Kalam in August 1985, when I was a professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada, and he was the Director of Defence Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL) in Hyderabad. I wanted to spend my sabbatical year at DRDL, with the intent of making up my mind whether to return to India permanently. He wholeheartedly welcomed the idea, with the result that I spent the period 1987-88 at DRDL, sitting in an office adjacent to his, and interacting with DRDL scientists on various missile projects. India’s very first successful missile launch, that of the Prithvi in early 1988, took place during this period.
While I was visiting DRDL, I was offered the Directorship of the newly created Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics (CAIR) in Bangalore, which I took up in June 1989. From June 1989 until July 1992, President Kalam was a fellow lab director, and someone whom I often contacted for mentorship and advice. In July 1992, he became the Director General of Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and thus my boss. From then, until November 1999, I had the pleasure and privilege of reporting directly to him. When he moved on from DRDO to become the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Cabinet, a position created for him, I was a member of the Scientific Advisory Committee to the Cabinet chaired by him. After he became President in 2002, I sometimes visited him in Rashtrapati Bhavan, and spoke to him on the phone many times, most often to provide inputs for various talks that he was always giving around the country.
After he stepped down from the Presidency, I continued to interact with him until I moved to USA. Interactions became infrequent due to the geographic separation, but I did meet him once in June 2013 and again in June 2014. He looked fine in 2013, but I must confess that I was shocked to see how much he had aged in just one year when I met him in 2014. Perhaps his own demanding work and travel schedule took a toll. His father lived until the age of 105, and his eldest brother is still alive at 99, so by the longevity standards of his family, President Kalam died very young.
Let me state what he was not. He was not a “great scientist” or a “great technologist,” in the sense of being someone who made original discoveries that get published in peer-reviewed journals. During his earliest days in the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), he worked in the area of composite materials, and did publish some scientific articles. But as he moved upwards, publications dried up. He was not the father of India’s space programme; that honour belongs (in my opinion) to Prof Satish Dhawan. My purpose in mentioning this is not to belittle his accomplishments. Rather, if we were to praise him as being something that he was not, we would make it easy for his critics to demolish our praise, and indirectly, his legacy.
So what was he? Undoubtedly he was the father of India’s guided missile programme. The IGMDP (Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme) was conceptualized by him, and led to all of the missiles that are in our armoury today. He was a very successful DRDO chief; many if not most of the successes of DRDO came during his tenure, in stark contrast to the tenures of his immediate predecessor and his immediate successor. He was also undoubtedly the leader of the Shakti series of nuclear tests in 1998. In social media, some wag commented that all President Kalam did was to pull the trigger. That is far from the truth. The nuclear tests were a project that was not only very complex, but also required enormous secrecy. Pulling off the tests without anyone getting wind of them was a major achievement, and it does not matter in the least who actually pushed the timer button.
President Kalam’s greatest strength was as a scientific administrator and project manager. Perhaps the reader is thinking “So he was a mere project manager?” I would reply that there is nothing mere about being a project manager. In fact, that is perhaps one of the most challenging tasks in India. We Indians really aren’t very good at working together, and getting a bunch of Indians to come together and build large complex systems such as missiles and combat aircraft is a major achievement. How did he achieve this? It was certainly not through a thorough mastery of all the constituent technologies. One acquaintance asked me whether President Kalam really “understood aerodynamics”. Well, he might have heard of the Navier-Stokes equation, but probably did not “understand” aerodynamics beyond that. But the tone and tenor of the question betrays a total ignorance of what it takes to lead a project.
President Kalam led a project by understanding the individual sub-systems that make up the overall system, and by meticulous checking and cross-checking of various claims made by his subordinates. Despite his presumed lack of “understanding”, it was impossible to bluff him about anything. He also had a great knack for spotting and promoting talent. Whenever he constituted a committee, he would nominate the juniormost scientist as the “Convenor,” thereby demolishing any feelings of hierarchy that might have existed in the minds of the rest. While others might write books about how to eliminate hierarchies in an organization, he simply went ahead and did it.
He was also supremely organized. In all the years I have known him (not just the years during which I “reported” to him), I do not recall any occasion on which I had to tell him something a second time. Tell him once, and it “registered” and stayed with him forever. It wasn’t as though he took copious notes. Indeed, that wouldn’t have helped him. His atrocious handwriting was legendary, and often even he could not decipher what he had written.
President Kalam often took a liking to specific individuals and wanted to have them with him as long as possible. He had the same Personal Secretaries right from 1992 when he became DG, DRDO, through his tenure as Principal Scientific Advisor to the Cabinet, his Presidency, and afterwards. One amusing episode concerned his driver whose name I have now forgotten. In DRDO, the drivers were all soldiers, who were transferred out after a fixed tenure of two to three years. But he took a fancy to a particular driver, and requested the Army not to transfer him. Who would refuse a request from him? So this chap continued as President Kalam’s driver long after his normal tenure posting in Delhi. They made a truly comical duo, as President Kalam did not speak a word of Hindi, and the soldier did not speak anything but. When President Kalam returned to the DRDO guesthouse which was his accommodation, he would get out of the car and tell the driver: “10 o’clock—10 o’clock! Understood, no?” with his characteristic finger-wagging and head-shaking. The driver would nod, and at this point one of us nearby would jump in and act as interpreter. I doubt whether the soldier even knew “one two three …” Nevertheless they got on famously.
He was also extraordinarily considerate. When he was Director of DRDL, he had two different Personal Assistants, one who worked from 9 AM to 5 PM, and the other from 2 PM to 10 PM. This was so that he wouldn’t inconvenience them and interfere with their family lives. As DG DRDO, on Sundays, he would dial the phone himself, without bothering his staff. Often on Sundays, we would pick up the phone and hear “Kalam here! Now…” Of course, as President, he had a bevy of persons to handle his phone calls.
Sometime in 2004 or 2005, a biology meeting was organized in New Delhi, at which J. Craig Venter, who headed one of the two groups to sequence the human genome, was to be felicitated by President Kalam. Naturally, I wasn’t going to miss an event like that, so I travelled to Delhi to attend the conference banquet in the evening and the felicitation the next morning. Sometime that afternoon, I got a call from Mr H. Sheridon, President Kalam’s long-time Personal Secretary (who moved with him from DRDO to Rashtrapati Bhavan), who led off by asking: “Sir, are you wearing a suit?” I found this odd, but replied that indeed I was wearing one. Then Mr Sheridon said that President Kalam wanted to invite me to a State Dinner in honour of the King of Nepal, if I remember correctly. Probably, they had a last-minute cancellation, so I was filling in. So I skipped the conference banquet and instead attended the State Dinner. After the dinner, President Kalam and the Chief Guest were slowly making a ceremonial march out of the banquet hall. As he passed by me, he said under his breath, “I’ll call you at10:30 tonight.” He did too, and went over his felicitation speech, ensuring that the content was scientifically accurate. This meticulousness was one of his hallmarks.
In February 2005, I had to go to Delhi on business, so I made an appointment to see him in Rashtrapati Bhavan at night, before my flight the next morning. I called his office the previous night to reconfirm my appointment, and the person who answered told me that President Kalam had had a fall, and had fractured his collar bone. After I arrived in Delhi the next morning, Mr Prasad, another of his Personal Secretaries who had moved to Rashtrapati Bhavan from DRDO, kept calling me to give updates. He said that the doctors had decided that merely immobilizing President Kalam’s arm would suffice and that surgery was not needed. So I made an appointment to pay a courtesy call on President Kalam that night, to see how he was doing.
When I was taken to see him, I had expected to see him convalescing. Instead, he was sitting, surrounded by some of his support team. Apparently the next day he was supposed to go to Mumbai to address the NASSCOM Technology Summit, but since he was forbidden by the doctors from travelling, he had decided to address them via video conference. He wasn’t going to let a little thing like a fractured collar bone stop him! So I joined the team that was working on his speech. After half an hour or so, I said to him “OK sir, I just came on a courtesy call. I will go now.” His reply was “No, you have not come on a courtesy call—you have come to work. SIT DOWN!” So I spent the next four hours assisting with his speech. It was a typical Kalam session. Every so often he would start talking about off-topic subjects just as a break, and when he had had enough of a break, he pretended that we had distracted him, and it was time to get back to work. Because he was a bachelor, he treated his close associates like his family (and vice versa, I might add).
As I flew back to Hyderabad the next morning, I was thinking of that late night session. It brought back fond memories, and reminded me once again why he was worshipped by people who worked for him. I went straight to the office because I had a meeting with my senior scientists. During the meeting, they could notice that I was rather distracted, and asked me what the matter was. I told them, “I am going through withdrawal symptoms.” They asked “Withdrawal from what?” “Withdrawal from Dr Kalam,” I said.
He would have dearly loved to be President for a second term, but Sonia Gandhi had never forgiven him for denying her the Prime Ministership in 2004. So she sidelined him and appointed one of her flunkies as the next President (Pratibha Patil). What a comedown! Sonia Gandhi forgot that Dr Kalam adorned the Presidency, and not the other way around. Sonia also sidelined President Kalam from the Nalanda University project, which was his idea in the first place, and installed Amartya Sen. The aftermath of that sorry tale is too well known for me to go into.
It is my belief that President Kalam wanted a second term not because he wanted “power and status”, but because he felt that the Presidency gave him a platform from which he could push his favourite themes. I believe he was mistaken on this point. People listened to him for what he stood for, not because he was the President. The number of meetings he was invited to address after he relinquished the Presidency would support my thesis. He was rightly called the “People’s President.” The number of people who came in contact with him, either listening to one of his speeches or visiting him at his post-Presidency residence on Rajaji Marg would be thousands of times more than those who met other Presidents.
After he stepped down as President, I felt that he became more sentimental. He genuinely missed “the old gang” from his DRDO (and ISRO) days. When he was President, he would greet me with “What’s happening?” But afterwards, he would often start off with “You’ve forgotten me!” There was a NASSCOM Technology Summit in Mumbai where he was to preside over the valedictory function and give out some awards. Naturally I made sure that I had a front row seat. When someone from NASSCOM sitting next to him got up to read their annual report, President Kalam motioned to me to come and sit next to him. I shook my head, but had to yield eventually.
So I clambered up onto the stage and sat next to him. He started off, as usual, with “You’ve forgotten me!” and spoke to me while the annual report was being read. The NASSCOM chaps were not amused, but he didn’t care.
His ability to connect with ordinary people was extraordinary. He did not speak “the Queen’s English,” but people responded to the sincerity and passion, not to the grammar and syntax. He did not put on a phony accent, as some supposedly successful people do, especially those from “humble” origins. He never changed his eating habits, remaining a “curd rice and pickle” type right till the end. He changed his dress only because protocol demanded it.
He genuinely cared for his well-wishers. Unlike pseudo-intellectuals who are in thrall of their Western paymasters, he was proudly Indian. In many ways his message was quite simple, and he repeated it steadfastly. Some people call him a “teacher”, but I don’t think that is the right term. He was more a role model who showed the path, rather than someone who tracked you to see whether you stayed on the path; following the path shown by him was your responsibility, not his.
Many suggestions have been made on how his memory should be honoured. Some have suggested that the next DRDO missile should be named after him, but in my view, that would be a mistake. The next missile would be followed by yet another, and one more; there should not be any successor to something named after him. Some have suggested changing the name of Aurangzeb Marg in Delhi to his memory; I strongly endorse this suggestion. No amount of whitewashing by our pseudo-secularists can hide the fact that Aurangzeb was an intolerant tyrant.
I would also like to see his birthday of October 15 named to reflect his philosophy. People have suggested Students’ Day, Teachers’ Day and so on, but in my view, perhaps it could be called Patriotism Day. My only hesitation is that calling one day as Patriotism Day might suggest that we need not be patriotic on the remaining 364 days!
Anyway, I hope that the government has the wisdom and also the courage to honour his memory in a fitting manner. And all us as private citizens must resolve to follow his ideals.
May his soul rest in peace.
M. Vidyasagar is Cecil & Ida Green Chair in Systems Biology Science at the University of Texas at Dallas. He has received many honours and awards for his research, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society. He worked closely with President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam for three decades.
This article was published in the August 2015 issue of Swarajya.
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