Dr. A P J Abdul Kalam, India’s missile man, the one who adorned the office of presidency with rare dignity and grace, is no more. From newspaper boy to first citizen, from Rameswaram to Raisina Hills, his journey is the stuff of dreams and is a testimony to India’s vibrant democracy.
While history will record his many-splendoured personality, the 1980s generation, for whom he was nothing less than a rock-star, will remember him for his obsessive simplicity. Which President of India had gone back to living in a one-roomed facility in a University Hostel? Contrast that with how politicians splurge public money. Read it along with the fact that when friends and relatives
travelled from Rameswaram by train for his swearing in and stayed at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, Dr. Kalam paid for it out of his pocket and not from the national exchequer.
His very election as Rashtrapati was remarkable, coming in the backdrop of the support of two sworn political enemies, the Congress and the BJP, indicating that his appeal cut across political lines. The adulation this elderly man with unkempt hair and poor oratorical skills drew was unbelievable, as the mere mention of his name drew applause all around. He was hugely approachable, earning him the moniker People’s President. The father of the Indian bomb touched the hearts of millions, in particular of school going children. They loved him like they loved no one else. He reached out to them like no Indian president had ever done.
Scaling the skies...
An alumnus of St. Joseph’s College, Tiruchi where he graduated in Physics, he studied aerospace engineering at the MIT-Madras. He dreamt of soaring in the skies as a fighter pilot but destiny had other ideas for him. India needed him for its bomb.
Professionally, Kalam worked at the DRDO and at the ISRO. He was the project director of India’s first Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV III) that sent the Rohini into orbit. He was the architect of Pokhran II nuclear tests that catapulted India to the super league. In 1998, along with cardiologist Dr. Soma Raju, Kalam developed a low cost coronary stent, named the Kalam-Raju Stent. The Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant picked life only after Dr. Kalam came out in open support of it.
A Bharat Ratna, he was the first scientist, the first bachelor and the second Tamil speaking occupant of Rashtrapati Bhavan.
His life was not without its share of controversies and failures. There are several colleagues who bitch about his stints at DRDO and ISRO. Dr. Kalam himself had his heart in his mouth when he signed the Office of Profit Bill. His signing of President’s Rule in Bihar in 2005 was questioned by the Supreme Court of India. The man with genial demeanour sat over the fate of 20 of the 21 mercy petitions and that included the plea of Afzal Guru. He only acted on Dhananjoy Chatterjee, a lowly liftman who was later hanged.
Back to his roots
After serving a five-year term as first citizen, Kalam returned to his first loves, of teaching and writing and continued to lead an austere life. In his book India 2020, Kalam strongly listed an action plan to develop India into a “knowledge superpower” by the year 2020.
When an American airline in India chose to whisk Dr. Kalam he made no fuss about it. Months later when the media got a whiff of the scandal and hit out at the insensitive airline, Kalam said he took no offence. That was the simplicity of the man.
It was only fair that he left us even as he was in our midst. That evening, on 27 July 2015, India’s most loved president suffered a massive cardiac arrest even as he was
addressing the students of IIM-Shillong.
I think the greatest tribute to Dr. A P J Abdul Kalam is that he had his immense assets and big ticket weaknesses, but that in the ultimate balance sheet of life his assets far far exceeded his liabilities.
Boy, there will never be another Kalam, for they don’t make anymore like him.