THURSDAY, JUNE 13, 2002: Two weeks ago, when Prime Minister Vajpayee floated the name of A P J Abdul Kalam for the position of the foremost public servant of the land, he knew he had a winning strategy.
The rival camp's key player Mulayam Singh Yadav swallowed it hook, line and sinker. After all it was Mulayam who as defence minister in 1997 had pushed for a Bharat Ratna for India's premier missile engineer. Vajpayee's aim was to get a BJP nominee elected to the highest office in the land as well as to torpedo the People's Front. On Thursday, he had achieved both ends.
It is not that Mulayam is a great believer in science and technology or in Kalam's achievements as a missile engineer. He wanted to cash in on Kalam's Muslim background. By this time Kalam was already an iconic personality whose inspirational statements and frugal life-style earned him a devoted following, especially among the role-model seeking youth in the country.
It is a different matter that the Agni and Prithvi are merely a reinvention of the wheel, that missiles have been around since World War II and that Akash and Trishul surface-to-air missiles and the Nag anti-tank missile are yet to be fielded despite two decades of effort. Besides being the head of the defence research and development organisation when Pokhran II was conducted, Kalam had little to do with the nuts and bolts of the nuclear weapons programme as such.
What makes Kalam attractive to the BJP, SP and Telegu Desam is his formal religious affiliation as a Muslim. His muscular nationalism manifested in one-liners -- 'Strength respects strength' -- goes well with the Sangh Parivar ethos. What makes him unbeatable for them is that he is a Muslim who exudes a rishi-like personality. He is a bachelor who has for years worked out of a single room wherever he has stayed. He is equally comfortable reciting the verses from the Bhagwad Gita as the Holy Quran and playing the rudraveena. To cap it all, he is a poet and a fan of Subramania Bharti.
In view of the great store he lays on the virtue of modesty, he could well be known not so much as the "first citizen" but as the "premier servant" of the people of India.
But Kalam's elevation has several weaknesses. First, is the signal that the world gets by the appointment of a missile engineer to the position of president of the republic. Second, while non-political luminaries bring great credibility and freshness to the office of the President, Kalam is handicapped by his defence scientist background which makes him naturally respectful towards the governments of the day. Having lived a life that required being shielded from politics, Kalam will not find it easy to deal with the political ethos of the era of coalitions.
But Kalam's personality, his greying locks and his Gandhian 'simple living and high thinking' formula conceal the mind of a shrewd player who has been spectacularly successful in bureaucratic politics of the ministry of defence and shown a knack for coming up winner in the corridors of power in New Delhi.
Born in the pilgrim town of Rameshwaram on the southern tip of the country, on October 15, 1931, Kalam once in an interview said, "...India has to get transformed from a developing nation into a developed nation. This needs three things. One, you should be an economically strong nation. Secondly, you should be self-reliant in national security and its technologies. Third, you should have a high standing or a high status in the world forum."
With this approach, Kalam, basically an engineer, straddled the science scene through its space, missile and nuclear programmes, each of them evolved indigenously. Kalam studied in a missionary school in Ramanathapuram and later went on to study intermediate from St Joseph's College in Tiruchirapalli.
He specialised in aero engineering from the Madras Institute of Technology. After a short stint as a newspaper vendor, Kalam began his career in the Defence Research and Development Organisation(DRDO) in 1958. Five years later in 1963, he joined the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and eventually became the Project Director of SLV-3.
From this position, he contributed towards design, development and management of India's first indigenous satellite launch vehicle that injected Rohini satellite in the near-earth orbit. Kalam rejoined the DRDO back in 1982 and conceived the integrated guided missile development programme for indigenous missiles. Later, from July 1992 to December 1999, he served as the scientific advisor to the defence minister and secretary, department of defence research and development. From 1999 till last year, he was the principal scientific advisor to the government of India.
Published in TimesOfIndia