What bothers me about APJ Abdul Kalam—and the way he is being mourned

People’s president.
People’s president.
Image: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
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With the late Indian president APJ Abdul Kalam, I have to confess to a less-than-adulatory feeling.

That may have roots at a lecture I heard him deliver in Delhi several years ago—part of a two-day seminar. Already president for some years, he was also already, and clearly, one of the most popular men in the country. As the time for his speech came nearer, the excited buzz in the hall grew.

And then he arrived. Namaste-ing to everyone, he strode to the lectern. He stood there with a smile, waiting for the buzz to die down. Which it did, and an expectant and silent few seconds followed.

Then he spoke. He spoke about rural India and poverty and much more. And at one point, he said he was going to illustrate a point about poverty and privilege with two different anecdotes from his life as a scientist.

So he told us the first story. Then he told us the second story. The details are both hazy and unimportant now, but amazingly, both stories were nearly identical in every detail. But also, both were naive, almost banal. I had to pinch myself: was this man I was listening to, just a few dozen feet away, really the president of the world’s largest democracy?

Of course he was the president. And over the years, I’ve had to come to grips with a sobering reality check: if Kalam’s stories left me cold that day, his enormous appeal to millions of my fellow Indians leaves cynics like me scrabbling in his dust.

Not long ago, he made an appearance at a literature festival. I couldn’t even see him from where I was. But I knew he was there by the way the crowds pressing to catch a glimpse of him made it impossible for the rest of us to even move for several minutes. This was a rockstar president, by far the biggest draw at a festival that also featured some of literature’s brightest names. At other times, I’ve seen schoolchildren gush and swoon over him. I’ve seen film stars, otherwise ready with facile non-sequiturs, speak from the heart about how he inspired them.

I mean, let’s be honest: can you even imagine his successor, Pratibha Patil, evoking such passion? Or any of the others—Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, Shankar Dayal Sharma, R Venkataraman—who have occupied that enormous mansion in New Delhi?

Don’t answer that. But what was it about Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam? Why is he alone routinely referred to as the “people’s president”?

People’s president

For one thing, he made himself and Rashtrapati Bhavan—and so the institution of the presidency itself—far more accessible to his fellow citizens than any other president has. Before him, who even saw our president except on TV? Who knew the president as anything but an august presence somewhere behind those imposing walls, separated from his people by that stern security? But here was a president who actually wanted to mingle with us, to remain one among us rather than an unapproachable exaltation on a pedestal. Who would not respond to that?

But I believe his appeal came from something even deeper. This man, remember, was a boatman’s son from Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu; from there, he grew up to be a scientist and engineer. His is a nation, after all, in which generations of parents have sought to turn their children into engineers (to be fair, doctors too). It remains a profession revered like few others. Only its practitioners, we believe, can and will transform India into that promised land so many yearn for: powerful, developed, filled with skyscrapers and expressways and gleaming airports.

And president Kalam was one such practitioner.

In a long line of politicians who have occupied the presidency, this man of science stood out. Simply by doing so, he stood for a nation’s aspirations. How could he not capture hearts? And when he went on to write books like Ignited Minds and Wings of Fire, when he offered us aphorisms aplenty about progress and dreaming and thinking, when he so often had simple advice that resonated… how could he not have Indians thronging to catch a glimpse of him?

Yet, it’s true: not this Indian. I believe he was a man who appreciated frankness, so let me be frank now. I never could see, as he did, that India needed the nuclear bomb to turn into a developed nation. Among other things, to me his aphorisms bore the stamp those long-ago stories did, of something almost banal. I welcomed his recent statement to the law commission criticising the death penalty. Yet, why did he not say so as president, when it could have mattered? Especially when it was while he was president that he learned, “to my surprise, that almost all the cases which were pending had a social and economic bias”?

Celebrate the Indian

And while it’s hardly his fault that he is being hailed on his death as a Muslim who grew up in a Hindu ethos, this speaks to me of an essential Indian conundrum. Sure, it’s an admirable upbringing, given how much mistrust there is between our various Indian faiths. But still, a cynic like me would like to see a president—of all people—celebrated above all for being Indian.

Celebrate this president, in particular, for being Indian. Period.

Being Indian, with everything that means. With the intricate and multi-hued, bleakly shaded but also hopeful, often ripped yet splendidly woven tapestry that is the heritage we can be proud of, unique in the world.

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