Citizen Kalam: Fine Mind, Biggest Heart

Published: July 28, 2015 10:58 IST
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In generations to come, India will no doubt produce finer minds; it is unlikely to give us a bigger heart. More than his achievements as a missile and defence technologist, beyond governmental accomplishments and far removed from the prizes and honours he received, President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who passed away in Shillong on July 27, touched human lives. He stood out, and his legend grew and grew well after he demitted office as President in 2007, because he remained what he had always been: a warm, engaging man, curious and affable at the same time, at once inquisitive and professorial, and ever accessible. 

Kalam was an eccentric; yes, of course he was. Yet, his principal eccentricity lay in the fact that he was so different from the archetypal Delhi power junkie. In India's capital city, politicians and pundits usually talk to each other or address some lofty and esoteric idea that has no real relevance to ordinary people's lives. Kalam was a misfit in this environment - because he actually spoke to real people. 

This point is not made facetiously. The Delhi bubble is so self-contained that one can seemingly spend a lifetime addressing subjects such as secularism, pluralism, syncretism, scientific temper, ethical values and even public service as if they were distant, recondite phenomena the rest of India needed to be lectured on - not real-life attributes that millions of Indians happily and quietly live, without making a fuss about it. It was this larger group that found in Kalam a kindred spirit. Inevitably, he came to be regarded the People's President.

Kalam was a Muslim who could quote Sanskrit and give a learned speech on the applications of that ancient language in cryptology. With equal felicity, he could relate stories of his father's religious duties in the local mosque and his teaching of the Quran to his children (Kalam and his siblings), and well as recall the temples that formed a part of his childhood landscape. He could refer to ancient Indian (or Hindu if you prefer) scriptures and talk with passion about the social benefits of modern science. He could play the veena and gaze at the stars with a matching fervour. Above all, he would never tire of prescribing practical solutions to everyday problems. He could do all these because they came naturally to him. They were not political statements or designed to impress.

As President, Kalam was correct but also remarkably unselfconscious. He rarely if ever made lofty speeches about universal brotherhood and global peace. He saw all of that as a given, and looked to helping his country draw up a road map to overcome its basic challenges. He redefined his role as President to that of India's Chief Evangelist, using the medium he knew best - technology - to attempt to goad society and government into making a difference to people's lives. 

Those power point presentations on Providing Urban Amenities to Rural Areas (PURA) were a regular, unchanging feature of Kalam's presidency. Initially they surprised people, sometimes even bored them. Even so, Kalam, with his constant striving and his determination, would not be defeated. He recognised the bridging of the gap in public goods and services between cities and villages as essential to India's future. 

As such he persisted - irrespective of whether his audience was that of school pupils or senior politicians. Even a routine tea-time reception for SAARC heads of government was converted into a sermon on the virtues of PURA. Eventually, the message hit home, Kalam's precepts began to be incorporated in development policy. 

Did Kalam deserve a second term in 2007? He was unquestionably popular and should a referendum had been called would very likely have won endorsement. This would not have been the case with many of his predecessors, good and distinguished men as they may have been. Having said that, there is something to the argument that India's Presidents should move on after a single term. In a nation of a billion, surely another illustrious name can be found.

Where the Congress-led government let Kalam and India down was in the choice of his successor. An enlightened, elevated selection such as that of Kalam - a result of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government recognising the need for a politically non-controversial figure, as well as a president who represented the sunshine of a new India and not just the backroom deals of a darker political culture - had to be acknowledged, if not bettered. In that framework, Pratibha Patil was an appalling choice.

Nevertheless, history has a way or making up. Today, Patil is largely forgotten. She is recalled only as a temporary embarrassment with an perennial sense of entitlement and a kleptocratic departure from the Presidential Palace, complete with the demand for a larger post-retirement home than rules permitted and those 40 trucks of gifts she took with her.

Kalam, in contrast, was a much loved man close to a decade after he had ceased to be President. He was the Indian miracle: the boy from an ordinary family in Rameswaram (Tamil Nadu) who entered and left Rashtrapati Bhawan with little more than a couple of suitcases. Citizen Kalam became the embodiment of how far merit could take you even in an imperfect system. 

No wonder crowds thronged to listen to him, see him, experience him. He never disappointed. His hurried walk, his searching questions, his passionate talks - nothing ever left him. He died at a public event, having travelled a long distance to address young students. One supposes it was as he would have wanted to go - on his feet, his mind whirring, a smile forming on his lips, ceaseless in the service of the country he so loved.

Mother India couldn't have asked for more. 

(The author is senior fellow, Observer Research Foundation. He can be reached at malikashok@gmail.com)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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