Presidents come and go. But the institution persists. However, certain presidents earn an image larger than the institution.
If there was a checklist of attributes for what it takes to be a president, APJ Abdul Kalam would not have ticked all the boxes. He was certainly not a traditional president. With his long hair and easy manner, he seemed to feel that he was a one of the masses. He was a man of science, in a country steeped in superstition.
In 2012, almost five years after he ceased being President, Reliance along with Outlook, CNN-IBN and The History Channel, conducted a poll to identify the greatest Indian after Gandhi. Kalam ranked first in the market survey result and second in the online polls. Why was he so popular?
Was it because he rose to the highest office of the country by sheer dint of hard work? Joining a government department as senior scientific adviser on a monthly salary of Rs 250, he changed the shape of the country’s missile and space programme by the end of a 43-year long career. In his book, Who is Kalam?, R Ramanathan, who worked with him in Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), recounts how Kalam would take late-night meetings and work till the early hours of the morning. He recollects an incident when a major-general sought an appointment and Kalam asked him to come at 10:30 am. When the major general said it would be difficult to reach so early, Kalam said he meant 10:30 pm.
Or was it because of his extraordinary vision? From the beginning, Kalam could look over the horizon. He came up with a Vision 2020 development plan in 1998. Even at Rashtrapati Bhavan, he had no time for small talk. When then president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, visited in 2005, instead of raising Kashimir, Kalam engaged him with a presentation on urban facilities in rural areas. Similarly, when George Bush visited Rashtrapati Bhavan in 2006, Kalam asked for an LCD screen and made a presentation on his vision for global energy self-sufficiency.
Then again, perhaps the secret of Kalam’s popularity lies in his humaneness. The one label that stuck to him was the “people’s president”. He was a nightmare for his security team, constantly breaking protocol and reaching out to interact with people. It is a tradition for the president to host an Iftar party and Kalam was expected to continue this tradition. However, as his then secretary P M Nair reveals in his book, The Kalam effect, when Kalam came to know that the Iftar would cost Rs 2.5 lakh to host, he cancelled the party and instead contributed the amount saved to 28 different orphanages adding Rs 1 lakh from himself.
Or was Kalam popular because of his simplicity? Customarily, when a president visits a state for the first time, he is honoured with a banquet. On such a visit to Kerala, Kalam invited a cobbler who used to mend his shoes and the owner of a hotel where he would eat regularly in his earlier days to a state banquet. His incredible connection with children may also be one reason for his popularity. As he often said, he considered children to be the first scientists since they keep asking the question “why?” with a curious mind. Even as president, he answered their questions with patience hoping to inspire and ignite their young minds.
The reason for Kalam’s popularity may also be because of his unique syncretism. A devout Muslim, and follower of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, he often quoted verses from the Bhagavad Gita. His favourite character was Vidura from the Mahabharata whom he liked for his simplicity and steadfastness to principles. At the same time, he lived by the ideal of Caliph Omar that all men are equal before the eyes of God. He was comfortable reciting the Koran as well as playing the Rudra veena.
In his 89th year, Abdul Kalam’s legend lives on. New stories about him continue to emerge and fresh anecdotes are revealed. At times, the lines between reality and lore; man, and myth begin to blur. The secret to this enduring popularity, I believe lies somewhere else.
It is a practise for every president to have an official photograph taken. This is hung in all government offices. Look closely at the official photo of Kalam and you see that he has his coat unbuttoned at his neck and in his pocket, he has a pilot pen. Here was a man who did not care for the appearances and niceties of the world. He was unashamed of his roots and had the courage to live his life uncomplicated by fears of how people would perceive him. He remains popular even now as we see a reflection of who we want to be in him. A man who even after becoming president, still remained the boy who delivered newspapers and dreamed of a better world for everyone.
Praveen Siddharth is Private Secretary to the President of India at Rashtrapati Bhavan
The views expressed are personal