APJ Abdul Kalam: The President whose legend endured a myriad controversies

Nobody could have put it better. Kalam was the embodiment of every Indian ideal. His rags-to-success story made him an achiever against insurmountable odds; contribution to Indian defence and military gave him the aura of a nationalist; conduct in the Rashtrapati Bhawan turned him into a People's President-- a People's Prince type epithet that instantly gave the West a measure of his popularity; and his inspiring speeches and books made him a hero of the youth and children.

Sandipan Sharma July 29, 2015 11:06:24 IST
APJ Abdul Kalam: The President whose legend endured a myriad controversies

"I am completely indigenous," APJ Abdul Kalam told The New York Times in 1998.

Nobody could have put it better. Kalam was the embodiment of every Indian ideal. His rags-to-success story made him an achiever against insurmountable odds; contribution to Indian defence and military gave him the aura of a nationalist; conduct in the Rashtrapati Bhawan turned him into a People's President-- a People's Prince type epithet that instantly gave the West a measure of his popularity; and his inspiring speeches and books made him a hero of the youth and children.

As a son, student, scientist, President, teacher, preacher, poet, writer, aficionado of classical Indian music, inspiration for a film (I am Kalam) and the new Chacha of children of India, Kalam lived an all Indian dream.

APJ Abdul Kalam The President whose legend endured a myriad controversies

PTI image.

"In recent history, only a few had endeared themselves to the young and old, poor and the rich, and to people belonging to different faiths,” former finance minister P Chidambaram rightly summed up Kalam's enormous popularity.

Kalam had many virtues that we hold close to our heart. Never give up, don't let failure destroy your dream, concentrate on your karma without thinking of the result, don't let success get to your head and put country above race and religion. Kalam practiced all of them.

As a student born in a humble family, he sold newspapers to support the family and finance his education. When Kalam was rejected for the job of a fighter pilot, a dream he had nourished since childhood, he took up an entry-level post at Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd.

And there was no looking back. A man, who was considered not good enough to fly a plane, became the architect of India's missile programme. From somebody who was rejected as a fighter, Kalam went on to become the face of India's nuclear programme. Kalam showed the world that he had wings of steel and determination of iron.

Kalam's karma brought him not just the deserved fruits of labour, but much more than that. "Kalam did not seek office; the office sought him," Natwar Singh memorably said after he was elected President. He remains a compelling example of how a karma yogi becomes destiny's favourite child.

Kalam was not the original choice for President in 2002. It was widely believed that PC Alexander, principal secretary to former PM Indira Gandhi, would get the job. Alexander, who was the governor of Maharashtra during Atal Bihari Vajpayee's government, was acceptable to most of the NDA constituents. And his past made him believe that even the Congress would back him. To his dismay, Sonia Gandhi refused to back Alexander's candidature.

For a very brief period, it seemed vice-president Krishna Kant would get the job. But he was also denied the opportunity after being tipped off to be ready for the election.

During this period, the BJP was trying to shed its rabid pro-Hindutva image -- a pursuit that ultimately ended with LK Advani's ill-fated paean to MA Jinnah. And Mulayam Singh, it is believed, offered a deal that the BJP couldn't resist. (Ironically, when Kalam became the front-runner for the President's post in 2012, it was Mulayam Singh who backed out at the last minute, paving the way for Pranab Mukherjee's election.)

When the Samajwadi Party agreed to support Kalam as the next President, a consensus soon developed even within the Congress to back his presidency. His election could have been unanimous, but for the Left's decision to prop up Captain Lakshmi Sehgal as token of resistance. Kalam's tenure had the potential of getting marred with controversies. But it is an ode to his personal integrity and administrative tact that he managed to steer India through a political storm.

His biggest challenge, of course, was the issue of Sonia Gandhi's eligibility to become PM. After the Congress emerged as the single-largest party in 2004, Sonia's expected ascent to the top job created a political furore. Unexpectedly, Sonia opted out of the race and named Manmohan Singh as the party's choice for PM.

There were rumours that Sonia had backed out because President Kalam raised the issue of her Italian citizenship. But Kalam maintained a dignified silence through the brouhaha. Years later, in his memoirs, Kalam revealed that if Sonia had staked claim to the post, he would have had no option but to appoint her.

Controversies, though, dogged Kalam for his role as a nuclear scientist. Some of his critics, like Homi Sethna, questioned Kalam's credentials saying he had received his masters degree in aerospace engineering, which is completely different from nuclear engineering. Kalam's entire cult as the face of India's nuclear programme also came under cloud when K Santhanam, the site director of Pokaran II, called the test a 'fizzle' and criticised Kalam for giving a false report.

And when Kalam became the President, Princeton scholar M V Ramana attributed it to Kalam's ability to "dress up even mediocre work with the tricolour to pass them off as great achievements." But, nothing could stop Kalam from becoming a legend.

When the history of post-Independence India is written, Kalam would rank right up there, in the company of legends like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Rabindranath Tagore. He will inspire India and Indians for years to come.

In his poignant goodbye to Kalam, his aide Srijan Pal Singh says, he once asked Kalam what would he like to be remembered as: "President, scientist, writer, Missile Man, Indian 2020, Target 3 billion..what?"

Kalam replied: "Teacher."

Yes, Kalam would be remembered for teaching us the value of both karma and raj dharma.

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