Dr Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam, who died on July 27, 2015, was perhaps the most accessible person at Rashtrapati Bhavan during his tenure from 2002 to 2007. Both during his presidency and after, Kalam grew in stature as a motivational speaker and inspirational teacher. It is fitting, therefore, that he died doing what he most loved.
Having earned his stripes as a key scientist behind India’s nuclear defense, satellite and ballistic missile programmes, Dr Kalam came a long way from modest beginnings as the son of a boat-owner in Rameswaram, Tamil Nadu, one of India’s most-flocked places of pilgrimage for Hindus. He championed the ‘Make In India’ ideal through his stewardship of these key programmes decades before Modi Inc began to market it. As he once described himself to a western newspaper, he was “totally indigenous.”
As Dr APJ Abdul Kalam worked tirelessly as a statesman, his stature exceeded that of president or patriot. A vegetarian, teetotaller and bachelor, he was not seen as a Muslim but an Indian. His charismatic personality, ready smile and distinctive wavy hairdo attracted people wherever he spoke. He was known to be great with children and students. He reaffirmed his zeal for ‘igniting minds’ with his affable nature and inspiring speeches. To his credit, he did not send anyone to the gallows.
His humility was no pretense. When he was frisked and searched twice by US immigration authorities in September 2011, he did not kick up a fuss and complied patiently. If you remember, a bigger brouhaha was made over actor Shah Rukh Khan’s similar treatment.
Truly, Dr Kalam’s hits as a public figure far outnumber his misses. Yet, it is important, on the passing of a personage of eminence, to reflect upon his shortcomings. The Indian press, we know, is habituated to deifying leaders upon their death, in the process overlooking their errors of commission and omission. Citizens have it far worse when they swim against the tide of popular opinion. Saying a critical word in a Facebook post or tweet only gets you trolled, even if what you say is in good faith.
I have not attended any of Dr Kalam’s lectures or public speeches but I have listened to them keenly on various media. A lot of what he said and did no doubt left people charmed. Yet, I believe he was silent or noncommittal on a number of issues that might have been ‘ignited’ had he been outspoken about them.
Two years after the post-Godhra Gujarat communal riots of 2002, Kalam visited Gujarat but did not make a clear statement on the state government’s accountability. Kalam only revealed later in one of his books that then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had asked him to reconsider making a visit during such a time. In 2011, his endorsement of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant appeared disconcertingly unilateral, grounded in his own convictions and support of nuclear energy as a scientist rather than as an empathetic leader of the people. Dr Kalam’s support of the river-linking project to solve India’s water woes may sound technocratic and visionary, but it is my considered opinion that it is myopic as it conveniently brushes aside the possibility of several disastrous consequences.
All of that said, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam deserved his sobriquet of People’s President. He spoke where he did with passion and heart. He will be mourned genuinely by those whose lives he touched. Real tears will be shed for him. And, in a parliamentary democracy where the office of the president is considered little more than a rubber stamp, that is a heartfelt tribute indeed.
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