The curious case of APJ Abdul Kalam

Published: June 29, 2012
The writer is a stage director, filmmaker and journalist in Bangalore. He is a co-founder of the Suchitra Centre for Film and Drama

The writer is a stage director, filmmaker and journalist in Bangalore. He is a co-founder of the Suchitra Centre for Film and Drama

He has his detractors. Even though he is called the ‘Missile Man of India’ and the chief promoter of India’s nuclear bombs, many people working anonymously in the country’s research laboratories will tell you that he is not really a scientist but an engineer and probably not a very good one. But he is, without question, the most respected popular choice for a second term as president of India.

Though Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam, 80, has excused himself from the presidential contest that is due in July 2012 — when the incumbent Pratibha Patil retires from the post — his brief presence in the race has brought up the irresistible coffee table question: would Kalam have won in a direct presidential election in India?

It is difficult to answer the question on two counts: Kalam has never addressed a political rally, so there is no telling how much impact he could make in any general election. And then, the technologist-statesman — and India’s most coveted chief guest or keynote speaker at institutional events — is probably an urban phenomenon, restricted to the zone of developed India.

But when he is present at a large public function, Kalam reigns unquestionably and easily with affable command and charm, especially with audiences comprising children or young Indians. I once shared a dais with the man at a tennis stadium in Bangalore, soon after he completed his first term as president of India (2002-2007) and watched in awe as Kalam tamed a screaming audience of about 8,000 school children within seconds and got them to take a collective pledge to serve the nation, repeating sentence by sentence after him and cheering with gusto at every pause in his speech.

Kalam is a curious case, challenging many Indian archetypes. His is a true rags-to-riches story, of a boy who tried to extend the family income by selling newspapers in Rameswaram, a south Indian small town, who became chief scientific advisor to the prime minister of India and, eventually, made it to the presidential office. A south Indian Muslim from a pious background, he is more likely to quote from the ancient Tamil classic Thirukkural than from Rumi or Iqbal. He fancies himself as an amateur musician and poses with the veena, an instrument in the Carnatic classical tradition — rather than one from the Hindustani traditions, which accommodate and are further advanced by Sufi Muslim influences. He is a development fanatic, a futurist and a strong believer in nuclear power — both for energy and strategic deterrence. An admirer once posed: “Sir, we are happy about the new Brahmos (missile) you have invented. But why don’t you invent things which promote peace?” To which, Kalam posted the reply: “…strength respects strength”.

He is more beloved of the right wing Hindu majority Bharatiya Janata Party than the centrist and minority-inclusive Congress, finding greater acceptance as a statesman than as leader of a minority community. Kalam’s support base, in spite of his English ‘accent’ — a major issue for urban, middle class Indians — is based on his background and political affiliation, which is broad and counter-intuitive. For instance, he was nominated twice for the MTV Youth Icon of the Year Award.

Pitching for Kalam as president, West Bengal’s Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, embarrassed the Congress party — which leads the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) that she is a part of — when she launched a Facebook page in support of Kalam, which only registered a few thousand ‘likes’ compared to Kalam’s own page, which has close to a million. However, it is unusual and ‘elitist’ for any political party in India to use social media as a political campaigning too.

On June 18, Kalam posted an official statement backing out of the presidential election, leaving the field clear for UPA’s candidate, Pranab Mukherjee. Kalam wrote to thank his followers: “It only reflects their love and affection for me and the aspiration of the people. I am really overwhelmed by this support”. It is indeed overwhelming. Perhaps, the story of Abdul Kalam is an allegory of the transforming subcontinent where identities and affiliations are getting reshaped by new history and newer economics.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 29th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (19)

  • BlackJack
    Jun 29, 2012 - 12:46AM

    It is one of the great tragedies of Indian politics that the ornamental position of President cannot go to the one person who the most people are rooting for. The writer argues that this base is largely urban and possibly in his home state – frankly I don’t think Pranab Mukherjee has a nationwide appeal either. Those who argue that the President should have a political background probably imagine that all constitutional monarchies are in a state of total disarray. While I believe that Pranab da is not a bad choice as Congressmen go, Dr. Kalam as a head of state inspired the average Indian by his success against the odds, his proven track record of service to the nation, and his genuine desire to seed young minds with inspirational thoughts. I find the reference to his accent unnecessary and absurd – and at least people want to hear him talk, which is more than we can say for Smt. Pratibha Patil.


  • Kaalchakra
    Jun 29, 2012 - 1:19AM

    The man even reads Geetha and other Hindu pagan books instead of pointing out their errors. Enuff said.


  • Arindom
    Jun 29, 2012 - 2:20AM

    I wouldnot call Kalam a rags-to-riches story – simply because he as no “riches”. He is one who reached from the bottom of the great Indian pyramid to the top by dint of his personality, hard work and honesty.


  • Dasmir
    Jun 29, 2012 - 2:24AM

    APJ Abul kalam is the kind of Muslim every Pakistani should aspire to become.Other icon is Mahmood Khan Achakzai.Rest have feet of clay.


  • Dr Madhab Kalita.
    Jun 29, 2012 - 2:36AM

    We are blessed to have You as an Inspirational, Motivational,…person. Hearing your name is like the hearing of the most wanted word I like to hear.


  • M
    Jun 29, 2012 - 3:58AM

    The feeling is mutual. Hindus see Islam as a highly imperfect religion(if that is what you want to call it) wrote as the word of a sick man.


  • M
    Jun 29, 2012 - 4:01AM

    Learn from Kalaam and other sophisticated Indian muslims. They are showing muslims worldwide the path to redemption and adaptation in the modern world. Local culture and identity trumps any perceived connection to Saudi Arabia.


  • vasan
    Jun 29, 2012 - 6:17AM

    Kaalchakra: Enough of your religious rantings. keep it to yourself and inside your country. No sane Indian Hindu or muslim will ever bother to consider your type of religious views as anything worth a cent/paise.


  • Somesh
    Jun 29, 2012 - 9:38AM

    Our beloved past president truly has “Wings of Fire”…… Thank you very much for giving us a Model Dr. Kalam….. You were, are and forever will be India’s most loved President….


  • karma
    Jun 29, 2012 - 10:09AM

    APJ Abdul Kalam is the true secular face of muslims in India. He who worships in a Mosque, has also studied BhagawadGita and has no qualms about quoting from it.

    The reason why India loves Kalam is because he represents its ideals. Middle of the road aspiration, Hardwork, respect and understanding of other religions and most importantly hope for a better future.


  • HH
    Jun 29, 2012 - 11:44AM

    What a shame. How can a simple article on the traits of a human turn into humiliation of anybody’s religious values???? Although I’m a Pakistani, I’d love to have such a president here….


  • Tony Singh
    Jun 29, 2012 - 11:56AM

    You are really caught in a time warp (Kalchakra in Hindi). Grow up.


  • Jpy
    Jun 29, 2012 - 12:02PM

    He is a wonderful statesman and patriot of Modern India who places the country and its people above everything. Hats off to you sir


  • vinnet
    Jun 29, 2012 - 1:06PM

    guys, isnt it obvious that kaalchakra is simply trolling to create a flame war?
    best ignore such.


  • ashok sai
    Jun 29, 2012 - 1:54PM

    Sad that Dr.APJK decided to withdraw from Presidential nominations. He is a man of dignity, mission and Vision, most beloved person in India.

    @ All those targeting Kaalchakra

    Friends, Kaalchakra is being sargastic, read his comment again.


  • M. Ahmed
    Jun 29, 2012 - 2:06PM

    “However, it is unusual and ‘elitist’ for any political party in India to use social media as a political campaigning too.”

    Is the last word “tool” in the above para?


  • P N Eswaran
    Jun 29, 2012 - 5:47PM

    If what the author says about Dr. Kalam’s competence as engineer is true then Dr. Kalam is a legend. Once Mulayam Singh Yadav, the Ayatollah of Indian secularism, asked Dr. Kalam whether he knew Urdu. Dr. Kalam replied he knows only Tamil and English. It is hard to imagine what qualities made this modest Tamalian and that too a Muslim who knows only Tamil and English to rise to enviable position in Delhi, the Indian capital of castism regionalism and communalism.

    Men like Dr. Kalam and Gandhi can be claimed by any community but would always belong to all. Their claim to greatness rests not in belonging but in becoming. Becoming a good human being.


  • Zalmai
    Jun 29, 2012 - 8:18PM

    Dr.Kalam is a unique personality comfortable with his indigenous roots and his dual identity
    as a Muslim son of Hindu India. I wish we had more people like him in the sub continent that promote tolerance, communal harmony and respect for all human beings regardless of their ethnic and religious affiliations.

    As an Afghan I acknowledge the fact that our forefathers were Zoroastrian, Hindu and
    Buddhist and and we have more in common with our neighbors in South Asia than we do with Arabs.


  • Amit
    Jun 30, 2012 - 5:32AM

    Zalmai saab,
    Well said. May your tribe increase!


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