Avul Pakir Jainulabedin (APJ) Abdul Kalam’s mission, like his best-selling book title (Wings of Fire: An Autobiography of APJ Abdul Kalam) sums up the dilemma of “Bharat” (India) of which he was a true “ratna” (jewel). India’s 11th president (2002-2007), one of the most remarkable men post-independence, collapsed, aged 83, while doing what he loved — addressing students. Kalam was unique on many counts.
He was a scientist who could quote from the Quran, Bible and Upanishadas with ease, recite classical Tamil poetry, play the rudra-veena, a traditional South Indian instrument, listen to Carnatic devotional music daily, and also perform his namaz (prayers).
Having a strong sense of the traditions in which his civilisation was anchored, Kalam was an embodiment of the eclecticism of India’s heritage of diversity. With his long silver hair unfashionably centre-parted and his Tamilian accent, he was an unlikely icon for young India that nevertheless adored him.
Unmarried, he had no children. But the way he would energetically move among them made President Pranab Mukherjee call him “Jawaharlal Nehru in another form”.
The only technocrat among politicians and scholars who have adorned the highest office, he lent it the touch of simplicity and modernity.
Presidents before and after him have undoubtedly been respected, but none is genuinely called “People’s President”. None with his obscure background (he sold newspapers as a student) has become the president.
During and after his tenure, his family continued to live in a village on an island near Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu. No other president has been urged by educated middle-class, tired of politics and politicians, to return to that office five years after retirement.
He did not attempt a Putin because he was non-political, but not apolitical. He knew that he would make adversaries, which he had uniquely escaped throughout his career.
India’s presidency has gone to those who were prominent in public life and/or were close and loyal to those politically powerful. Kalam had none of those qualifications.
He was a retired scientist-bureaucrat on whom the highest office was virtually thrust. This was propelled by the need for political penance, of electing a Muslim in the highest office after over a thousand from that community were killed in sectarian violence in Gujarat under then chief minister, now prime minister, Narendra Modi’s watch.
It was also a ploy to beat the political opposition that might have embarrassed the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government by fielding a minority candidate. Innocent of all these considerations, Kalam fitted the bill.
On a personal/professional note, I “scooped” his choice for the presidency. I wrote ahead of the competition after some Bharatiya Janata Party lawmakers whom I berated for the Gujarat carnage boasted about “a Muslim candidate whom nobody can oppose”.
Those were my moments of professional pride and satisfaction. The polite but elusive man who avoided meeting the media when he headed the Defence Research and Development Organisation, India’s gigantic defence labs’ network, saw a “friend” in me, to the envy of others.
A devout Muslim, he would happily pray at any shrine. One never asked, but obviously, he saw no contradiction.
During his presidential campaign, I secured a rare photograph of him in a temple’s garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum). It had great “news value” at that stage, I thought.
But to my utter disappointment, the newspaper I worked for did not use it — nor could I retrieve it. Even as a technocrat, Kalam was extraordinary.
He was an engineering graduate — no more — from the lesser known Madras Institute of Technology whose acronym MIT resembled that of the renowned American institution.
But he went on to guide space, satellite and missile missions, oversaw the defence R&D with arguable success and brought India to the global top table.
He never studied or qualified for a PhD, but received honorary doctorates from 30 odd universities across the world.
Defence establishments worldwide marvelled at this. When he became the president, some in the Western media claimed that he had mastered missile technology with American help, citing his brief, official visit to that country.
“I am completely indigenous!” he told The New York Times in 1998, the year India conducted the nuclear tests. For him, it was a point of pride that India did it without much help from foreign powers.
A man of peace, for him, all this was pursuit of science and technology — no more, no less. When the Manmohan Singh government was negotiating a civil nuclear deal with the US, the opposition turned to Kalam.
His advice carried the deal through in Parliament. He was in the team that developed India’s first rocket. The most ideal point to launch it fell in a church.
Kalam persuaded the local Christian community that facilitating it was the best service to God. Visiting Africa as the president, he proposed an Internet link up.
Today, much of the continent is linked to India’s healthcare network. He had an uncanny ability to connect with a variety of audiences.
Post-retirement, he set himself a demanding schedule of visits and speeches, notably to educational institutions. That included a visit to Malaysia.
Forever an optimist, Kalam’s every pronouncement oozed of pride in the past and boundless faith in the limitless possibilities of the future.
Advantage India, a book that throws light on the country’s opportunities and the key challenges in the next five years, will be his last. He was a non-partisan saint in a heavily partisan world.
He was a prophet who landed on the wrong planet.