Kalam the President Went Where His Conscience Took Him

‘APJ’ pushed the envelope on political issues but kept within the ‘Lakshman rekha’ that the Constitution has drawn for presidential functioning

APJ Abdul Kalam in conversation with Manmohan Singh. Credit: PTI

APJ Abdul Kalam in conversation with Manmohan Singh. Credit: PTI

It is always difficult to evaluate a leader’s political legacy hours after he has passed away, particularly in a country  given to emotion, like India is. It is even more difficult to do this for someone like APJ Abdul Kalam, whose USP was his ability to reach out to – and connect with – ordinary citizens during his 2002-07 presidency, and this is reflected in the outpouring of grief at his passing away on July 27.

But it was by accident that Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam became the 11th president of the Indian republic.

Back in the days of majority governments, Indira Gandhi, as Prime Minister, decided who would be the next President months ahead of the due date and R. Venkatraman was informed that he was going to be the chosen one, almost a year in advance. Of course, he was told to keep the decision under wraps. But with the onset of the coalition era, and the pulls and pressures that PMs began to be subjected to, ad hocism characterised decision-making at the top.

This happened also in 2002 when the National Democratic Alliance was in power and Atal Bihari Vajpayee was Prime Minister. The BJP’s first choice for President was P.C. Alexander but the Congress, which had fallen out with the former principal secretary to Indira Gandhi and to Rajiv Gandhi when they were Prime Minister, was averse to the suggestion. So the idea was dropped.

Vajpayee, who wanted to take the decision by consensus, zeroed in on Krishan Kant, then the Vice President. The Congress agreed to his name. So did state leaders, led by Chandrababu Naidu. The decision was conveyed to Kant by none other than Vajpayee himself. And then suddenly the decision was undone. A group inside the NDA – including Pramod Mahajan, George Fernandes and L.K. Advani – felt Kant would be closer to the Congress than to them. Vajpayee had to give in and the hunt started for another candidate

(It is one of those coincidences that Kalam passed away on July 27, the very date on which a broken-hearted Krishan Kant had died 13 years earlier, weeks after the presidency eluded him.)

Both Mulayam Singh Yadav and Chandrababu Naidu have taken the credit for mooting the idea of APJ Abdul Kalam for Rashtrapati Bhavan, though in Kalam’s own words, Naidu was the first one to phone him on June 10, 2002 and within seconds of his call, the Prime Minister was on the line. Vajpayee entreated Kalam, who was then teaching at Anna University in Chennai, to say only a “yes” and not a ”no” to his offer.

‘First task’, Gujarat

Though some have talked about Kalam’s political naïveté – indeed, his popular appeal was based on his being a “non-politician” politician – Kalam’s first act as President of going to Gujarat showed that he was no babe in the woods.

APJ Abdul Kalam listens to a young survivor at Naroda Patiya, Ahmedabad, site of one of the worst incidents during the 2002 Gujarat riots, during his visit to the state in August 2002. Credit: PTI

APJ Abdul Kalam listens to a young survivor at Naroda Patiya, Ahmedabad, site of one of the worst incidents during the 2002 Gujarat riots, during his visit to the state in August 2002. Credit: PTI

He decided to visit Gujarat a couple of weeks after taking over on 25 July 2002 and this created huge discomfiture in the NDA government with Prime Minister Vajpayee questioning if it was really “essential” for him to visit the state. The issue was a sensitive one because Gujarat had gone through bloody riots that had taken the lives of more than 1000 people, most of them Muslim. There was speculation that Narendra Modi, then the caretaker CM with the assembly having been dissolved and the state getting ready for polls, might not receive him, though this did not happen. In Kalam’s words:

“PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee was discomfited by my decision. He asked me, ‘Do you consider going to Gujarat at this time essential’? I replied, ‘I must go and talk to the people as a President. I consider this my first major task.’ “

Kalam could not but have been conscious of the fact that a large number of Muslim organisations and leaders had been silent about his elevation as President, while the RSS had endorsed his candidature, enthused by his many virtues. He had put India on the missile map, promoted the study of Sanskrit and the Vedas, he played the veena, was a vegetarian – and a bachelor – and was known for his integrity and simplicity.

He may have wanted to visit the violence-torn state – without waiting to be invited, which is normally the norm for presidential visits – because as First Citizen, he wanted to share the agony of those affected. But he may have also wanted to send a signal that he did not want to be seen as anybody’s man, and would be even-handed in his treatment of all communities and parties.

‘APJ’ pushed the envelope on issues but kept within the ‘Lakshman rekha’ the Constitution has drawn for presidential functioning, and could therefore be called a constitutionally correct President. R Venkataraman had referred to himself as a “copybook” President, an emergency light which came on during crises; Kalam’s predecessor, K.R. Narayanan called himself a “working President”.

Kalam returned the Office of Profit bill which exempted certain offices of state and central government – including the Sonia Gandhi-headed National Advisory Council – from the purview of Office of Profit for MPs, but when the UPA sent it back unchanged, he signed it.

The President-PM relationship is a delicate one in our constitutional scheme of things. Just as Kalam had an easy relationship with Vajpayee, so also he enjoyed a comfort level with his successor, Manmohan Singh. It was Singh who dissuaded Kalam from resigning when the Supreme Court passed strictures against the Centre for dissolving the Bihar assembly in May 2005. For it was Kalam, then in Moscow, woken up at night, who as President had signed the proclamation.

It was said at the time that the UPA government opted for dissolution under pressure from Lalu Prasad’s RJD, which wanted fresh elections. The elections in early 2005 had thrown up a hung assembly, which was then placed in suspended animation, but when the NDA was in the process of breaking Ram Vilas Paswan’s MLAs, the assembly was dissolved.

Kalam came to the rescue of Manmohan Singh in 2008 to facilitate the passage of the Indo-US nuclear deal, though by then he was no longer President. It was his statement in favour of the deal, which the Samajwadi Party latched onto, to justify the end of its opposition to it. It was the SP which bailed out the Manmohan ministry when the Left withdrew support to the UPA.

Clears air on Sonia

Kalam however took eight years to lift the veil on the controversy that it was he who had prevented Sonia Gandhi from staking her claim to the prime ministership in 2004 because of her foreign origins. It was only at the tail end of the UPA’s second sting in power in 2012 that he revealed in his book Turning Points that he had been prepared to swear her in as the Prime Minister.

Few Presidents – they are usually far removed from public dealings – have been a draw at the popular level, like Kalam was, and that is the biggest political legacy he has left behind. Those present at the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Delhi remember that he was the only person who drew thunderous applause amongst the battery of leaders present.

His writings and the solutions he offered often looked simplistic. What worked for the “People’s President” was that he came to epitomise the mood of the moment. He represented the qualities of ‘modernity’ – given his background of science, technology, of building missiles and the nuclear bomb – that appealed to an aspirational, young India which dreamt of the country becoming a major power. This, combined with his simplicity and accessibility, made him an iconic President, especially at a time of growing disgust with a grasping political class.

Neerja Chowdhury is a senior journalist and political commentator.