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Bharat’s Ratna

Saturday 7 July 2007

The disarming ebullience, forthrightness, simplicity and integrity of the Kalam presidency won over both India and Bharat. Naturally, the political class had to look for an alternative, writes Swapan Dasgupta

Almost five years ago, just after Pramod Mahajan — or was it Mulayam Singh Yadav? — surprised everyone by throwing in APJ Abdul Kalam’s name into the presidential ring, a BBC radio station organised a 20-minute discussion on the subject involving the writer Sunil Khilnani and me.

Khilnani, the good Nehruvian that he undoubtedly is, had absolutely no doubt in his mind that Kalam’s nomination by the Atal Behari Vajpayee government was an elaborate charade. With the country still digesting the aftermath of the horrible communal conflict in Gujarat, he seemed to think that the BJP was using a pliant Muslim like Kalam to divert attention from the party’s proactive role after the Godhra carnage. It was, of course, an entirely separate matter that Kalam became the front-runner by sheer accident — after then Vice President Krishan Kant and PC Alexander failed to pass the “consensus” test.

For long, bleeding-heart secularists have worked on the assumption that Hindu nationalism viewed the Muslims of India in the same way as the Nazis perceived Jews. In other words, it was impossible for any self-respecting Muslim to either be a part of the BJP or to even be remotely associated with the saffron dispensation. Consequently, just as the ebullient Sikander Bakht had to endure constant taunts of being the “Uncle Tom” in the BJP, there was the deep suspicion in the minds of the politically righteous that Kalam had become a Muslim counterpart of Marshal Petain — the French hero of World War I who spent World War II collaborating with the Nazis and propping up a puppet regime in Vichy. The Communists certainly believed so — the reason why they fielded their own candidate against him — and a large section of the Congress shared this belief, despite the party grudgingly endorsing Kalam.

The reason for recalling the polarised atmosphere of the summer of 2002 is obvious: Kalam’s entry into Rashtrapati Bhavan was accompanied by trepidation among a section of the liberal intelligentsia — disproportionately non-resident in India — that believed Indian politics was taking an ominous turn. With a reputation for being the “missile man” who played an important role in the Pokhran-ii tests in May 1998, the new President was seen by many as a stalwart of the hard-faced, ultra-nationalist lobby that was now ruling India. That both India’s nuclear research and missile programme were clouded in military secrecy only compounded these sectional fears. In 2002, there was a fear in the fringe that India was hurtling towards a xenophobic, Hindu dispensation which would unsettle the liberal ethos of the Republic. The election of Kalam was seen as a part of this sinister drift.

In politics, the term for flexibility is ‘adjust’. Kalam was unwilling to make that adjustment. He didn’t believe it was his duty to condone political jugaad India in 2002 had no inkling that the new President — the first truly non-political appointment (even educationists such as S. Radhakrishnan and Zakir Hussain were in the periphery of political life before they entered Rashtrapati Bhavan) — was going to emerge five years later as a folk hero, the darling of the chatterati and non-voting classes, and a role model to those we gratuitously refer to as “tomorrow’s India” in a trajectory that had nothing to do with the government of the day. In an age where politicians have come to personify disrepute, Kalam is perceived as a selfless patriot and an outstanding scientist — this despite his constant protestation in his autobiography Wings of Fire that he was primarily an engineer.

Kalam was denied a second term by a political class that couldn’t stomach an “outsider” grabbing the country’s most coveted sinecure. In this act of exclusion, the BJP was as culpable as Sonia Gandhi and the Communists. Yet, the politicians’ wariness of him has only added to his mystique. Kalam will demit office in July as a national hero, bigger in stature than any other living Indian — cricketer, tech entrepreneur and Bollywood star included. Pranab Mukherjee may well be right that the Electoral College for the presidency is not made up of those who have resoundingly endorsed Kalam in Internet and sms polls. But even the most cynical political time-server will grudgingly admit that Kalam’s personal popularity among ordinary Indians has touched dizzying heights. Compared to Kalam, his aspiring successors seem jaded plodders.

What triggered this dramatic evolution into greatness? What does it say about the style of the Kalam presidency? More important, what does the Kalam phenomenon reveal about the state of contemporary India?

Kalam’s elevation to the foremost place in India’s hall of fame did not stem from his undeniable contributions to the missile and space technology programme. Individuals who make a mark in their chosen fields and areas of expertise — Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai, JRD Tata, Amitabh Bachchan and Sachin Tendulkar are some names that come to mind — command respect and even adoration. However, their fame remains sectional and tempered by the familiar Indian squeamishness surrounding personal wealth and social privilege.

Had Kalam not been elected President in 2002, he would have remained a venerated Indian — a person awarded the Bharat Ratna on the strength of real achievements rather than political expediency — but he would not have captured the national imagination. It was the national exposure of his five-year stint at Rashtrapati Bhavan that prompted Indians to sit up and take note of a quirky breath of fresh air in public life.

In assessing President Kalam, there are two different aspects of his tenure to be considered: his role as the Head of State and guardian of constitutional government, and his emergence as a distinctive Indian symbol. Both are interconnected.

Kalam was a rare individual who was elected President without possessing a working knowledge of either the political system or the Constitution. His rich experience in the elite sector of the science and technology establishment may have led to some inspiring and exasperating encounters with babudom but it had left him insulated from the political establishment. He encountered the most enlightened face of Prime Ministers, Defence Ministers and mps in parliamentary consultative committees; he never had the occasion to be familiar with the seamy and less appetising facets of public life. Having spent a life burrowing into the challenging complexities of missile development, he was untainted by the real world of duplicity and deceit. Kalam entered the political world without anything more than a perfunctory knowledge of what “political compulsions” meant. He literally arrived in Rashtrapati Bhavan without baggage.

A person of integrity thrust into such a world could have reacted in two possible ways. He could, like some of his predecessors, have settled for an untroubled sinecure and faithfully obliged the government of the day. Alternatively, he could have chosen to be disgusted by what he saw around him and assumed the role of a slightly ridiculous Don Quixote, valiantly tilting at windmills. He did neither.

The hallmark of Kalam’s presidency was his constant willingness to play with a straight bat and strictly by the book. Throughout his tenure, there were many ticklish issues that came before the President. These ranged from exercising his Constitutional prerogatives to putting his signature on Constitutional appointments. On all occasions — barring two — his conduct was exemplary.

Quite early on, Kalam grasped the fact that the President was by law and convention obliged to follow the advice of the Union Cabinet, regardless of his personal preferences. However, he soon made it quite clear to the political class that Rashtrapati Bhavan would not bend the rules to accommodate the ruling dispensation. In Indian political parlance, the term for flexibility is “adjust”. Kalam was unwilling to make that adjustment. He didn’t believe it was his duty to condone political jugaad. The word soon got around that this President was unwilling to be anything but the impartial upholder of his Constitutional duties. This intransigence angered those who felt that his “non-political” approach was infuriating. But it was this reputation that acted as an invisible deterrent to attempts to short-circuit the system. Kalam may not have strengthened institutions but he prevented fragile structures from further deterioration.

This unbending attitude had some dramatic consequences. Sonia Gandhi’s abrupt resignation from the Lok Sabha last year was, for example, a pre-emptive move to avoid inevitable disqualification under the Office of Profit rules. Had there been an obliging rubber-stamp in Rashtrapati Bhavan, the upa government would have pressed for greater accommodation to factor in political realities. With Kalam at the helm, this proved impossible and became the reason for his unpopularity with the political class.

Likewise, it is well known that President Kalam made many ministers sweat it out with demands for details and clarifications before grudgingly approving some less-than-wholesome appointments. Kalam did more than advise, caution and even warn the government. If and when the archives are opened or if serving politicians write their memoirs, the country will appreciate the lengths Kalam travelled to maintain standards in public life. He didn’t always succeed but his prickliness prevented political brazenness.

What distinguished him from his predecessor was that while President KR Narayanan’s awkwardness was based on political preferences, President Kalam’s was centred on ethical norms. It was the fear of how President Kalam would react, rather than him actually asserting his independence, that made politicians uncomfortable. Kalam was not an activist President in the same way as Giani Zail Singh and Narayanan (or even Dr Rajendra Prasad) were; his conception of the presidency was innovative but deeply conservative.

Yet, there were two occasions when Kalam erred. The first, and relatively unpublicised occasion was his demand that the Vajpayee government resign after dissolving Parliament in 2004 and be substituted with a non-partisan caretaker regime. This was a gesture of improvisation that may have been grounded in the principle of fairness but it lacked constitutional sanction. It was a piece of adventurism that Kalam wisely didn’t persist with. The second occasion was when he accepted Governor Buta Singh’s report on the constitutional breakdown in Bihar after the first 2006 Assembly election in Bihar. Kalam was probably misled by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s personal plea of immediacy and hurriedly signed the proclamation in Moscow. Subsequently, the Supreme Court declared the move illegal, although it refrained from being critical of Rashtrapati Bhavan. A humiliated Kalam vowed to be doubly cautious in future and to never accept the government’s advice without an independent application of mind. He learnt from his mistakes.

There were two factors that helped Kalam maintain his doughty independence. First, he approached political disputes from the perspective of a complete outsider. He thought it was his duty to uphold fairness — a reason why he gave appointments to almost each and every delegation with every imaginable grievance. Consequently, he was not burdened by the largely spurious polarisation that pits Indian against Indian. This was particularly true of the secular-communal debate which agitates politicians and the intelligentsia. A deeply religious individual — belief in God is a theme that resonates throughout his autobiography — he viewed faith as an instrument of personal piety and not an expression of political ideology. He was a practicing Muslim but there was nothing exclusive about his beliefs. He was just as willing to take solace in the Upanishads as in the Koran. In both public and private life he couldn’t be reduced to a convenient stereotype.

Many in Mumbai recall his visit to the city after the July11 serial bomb blasts in the commuter trains. Moved by the suffering of the victims, he brushed aside his prepared speech to a meeting of industry bigwigs. We can’t prevent evil, he told them, but if those who believe in good get together, we can make this a better India. It wasn’t a particularly profound message but it came from the heart and wasn’t peppered with gratuitous references to secularism that is the hallmark of politicians.

Secondly, Kalam had a stupendous public appeal — in all walks of life but particularly among children — which was totally independent of politics. To many Indians he was an Indian role model — the boy of humble origins who made good, and who was single-minded in his dedication to ensuring a better future for all Indians. It was this popularity that provided him a shield against reckless political pressure. Politicians instinctively knew that in any dispute involving the government and Rashtrapati Bhavan, public sympathy would be decisively with Kalam. He was not someone they could afford to mess with.

With his slightly eccentric demeanour, the uninhibited way in which he propagated his pet themes — beginning from his Vision 2020 and culminating in his suggestions to bring modern, urban facilities to rural India — and his penchant for lapsing into poetry, Kalam was a breath of fresh air in public life.

Hardened apparatchiks may have been acutely embarrassed by the way Kalam would launch into a Powerpoint presentation about some development theme or another. They would have squirmed at the some of the presidential sayings he publicised in the official website, and which were apparently aimed at children. Just two examples will suffice: “Thinking should become your capital asset, no matter whatever ups and downs you come across in your life” and “Thinking is progress. Non-thinking is stagnation of the individual, organisation and the country. Thinking leads to action. Knowledge without action is useless and irrelevant. Knowledge with action, converts adversity into prosperity.”

Kalam had his own priorities and these were often at odds with both conventional wisdom and protocol.

But regardless of whether they followed his thick Tamil accent or the drift of his arguments, no audience could mistake his unquestioned sincerity. Kalam cared for India and this not only showed but also proved inspirational. In an age marked by naked self-aggrandisement and deep cynicism, Kalam showed that it was still possible to exude modernity and idealism. He was in many ways a complete oddity — Indians in public life are not prone to identifying with either Young India or packaging thoughts in modern technology (most politicians are incapable of distinguishing between e-mail and snail mail). This is why the sms generation deified him. Kalam represented a happy blend of Indian tradition — he was completely Indian in tastes and temperament — and the technology-dominated global environment.

Kalam never made the spurious distinction between Bharat and India — to him they were totally inseparable. He wanted Bharat to be transformed into India without ceasing to be Bharat — missiles with a touch of Vedic wisdom. The adulation that greeted him was as much an endorsement of an endearing man of simple habits and fanatical dedication as it was an indictment of contemporary politics. By his mere presence Kalam threatened the ramshackle edifice on which public life in India rests. He was a threat to the core assumptions of politics. He symbolised the Indian quest for decency and uprightness in public life. This is why he had to be thrust aside for a more conventional and malleable occupant of Rashtrapati Bhavan.

The Kalam era is over; the Kalam legend is just about beginning.



- July: Defeats Lakshmi Sehgal, the Left-sponsored candidate, by a huge margin, and takes office as 11th President of India. The first who had had nothing to do with politics all his life. The first who came into Rashtrapati Bhavan already a Bharat Ratna

- August: Visits strife-torn Gujarat. Meets riot victims and pays unscheduled visits to Swaminarayan Pramukh Swami and the Jain saint Acharya Mahapragyaji

- August: Seeks clarifications on the proposed amendments to the Representation of the People’s Act, 1951, for poll reforms

- August: Signs Representation of the People’s Act, 1951, amendment ordinance after nda government returns it to him unchanged

- December: Scraps the traditional Iftar at Rashtrapati Bhavan


- May: Approves a faxed request from the UPA government to dissolve the Bihar Assembly while on a tour in Russia March

Summons Jharkhand Governor Syed Sibte Razi for appointing Shibu Soren chief minister without majority 2006

- May: Returns Office of Profit Bill to Parliament

- August: Signs Office of Profit Bill after UPA government returns it unchanged.


- March: Visits the Fatehpuri mosque in Delhi to offer namaaz for the first time in public gaze

- June: Agrees to contest for a second term, but only on the condition that he is guaranteed victory. Three senior UPA ministers ask him to withdraw. “The match is over,” Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar says

- July: Kalam pulls out of contest, saying he does not wish to make the election a political slugfest

See online : Tehelka

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