Ours is a parochial society where prejudices thwart the growth of an individual based on his or her economic class, religion, caste and several unscientific social constructs. However, once in a while comes a person who is so extraordinary that the people hold him aloft as a trophy, forgetting all lesser identities of the subject. Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam, with honorary doctorates from 40 universities, was one such personality. Envied as well as respected by his peers and celebrated by the masses, the 11th President of India climbed the popularity charts quickly around the time India was about to go nuclear, as the delivery of indigenously developed warheads depended on indigenous missiles in a world that would simply not let anybody outside the elite club of permanent members of the Security Council to prepare its defence adequately. Kalam’s contributions to the Agni and Prithvi programmes were deservedly lauded. Working with the DRDO and ISRO, having received the tutelage of Vikram Sarabhai, and being invited to the Terminal Ballistics Research Laboratory to witness India’s first atomic device Smiling Buddha, the eighth child of a humble boatman had acquired the necessary wherewithal to be in the league of the country’s topmost scientists, with the PSLV, SLV-III and Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme as feats worth mentioning in his curriculum vitae. No wonder, he made it as the Scientific Adviser to the Prime Minister in the period 1992-99. Many other achievements marked Kalam’s career as a man of complex physical sciences. But it was his presidency that endeared him to all.
Ironically, a pluralist, multicultural Kalam’s religion played a part in his victory. When Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA-1 nominated him as the alliance’s presidential candidate, the Samajwadi Party and NCP found it too politically incorrect to oppose the Muslim name; and thus the numbers necessary to defeat communist candidate, INA veteran Laxmi Sehgal, were achieved in voting.
Soon, Kalam’s decisions stood out in the parliamentary system of India where the President is just the nominal head. The government that had hoisted him had demitted office in two more years. Making the point that he was no pushover, his benign demeanour notwithstanding, Kalam put his foot down on the Office of Profit issue, and had to accept the Bill when it was returned to him for the second time, grudgingly that is; for, the President not refusing twice a law proposed by Parliament is the convention. He also surprised genuine egalitarians by speaking up in favour of a Uniform Civil Code.
But they were his interactions with the people that made him their darling. While ‘experts’ thought they were being subjected to monotony due to his signature style of explaining things using slides at workshops and seminars, the lay loved his modesty and humility, and the children adored his inspirational talks and motivational books. Finally, when he was to retire, millions pleaded before the government of the day to allow him a second term — a precedent never repeated since Rajendra Prasad, the first President. While the pleas fell on deaf ears, Kalam’s retirement took nothing away from his aura, noticed remarkably three years after he was no longer the President when morose spectators of a scandal-ridden Commonwealth Games in New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium greeted him with a standing ovation that lasted several minutes. The “People’s President” stayed in the midst of the scholastic community, pepping them up by sharing his vision of a prosperous India. Destiny bid his life a fitting adieu when he collapsed while in the teaching act. The loss is irreparable. The nation is mourning. But the life that he led from Rameshwaram to New Delhi and the lives that he enthused all over the place will stay as a morale-boosting lesson for generations to come.