It was meant to be a celebration of excellence in journalism. The Ramnath Goenka award ceremony was a gathering of the country’s power elite: top politicians, captains of industry, cerebral editors, page three shakers and the humble pen-and-mike pushers. The editors and proprietors were debating the eternal dilemma of journalism: the relationship between journalistic excellence and business success. That’s when President APJ Abdul Kalam intervened and spoke of the urgent need for the media to nation-build. Nothing profound, but said with a simplicity of intent. Then, even before the editors could respond, the President came up and sat cross-legged on the edge of the stage as a stunned audience watched. The president of India was literally sitting at the feet of the country’s media denizens.
The next morning as the photo was splashed in the newspapers, my 10-year-old looked at me quizzically, “Why is the president kneeling in front of you? Isn’t he the president of the country?” In her question was a mix of awe and wonderment. It was also a reminder of just how Kalam had changed the presidency, and just why he will be missed when his term ends next week.
<b1>In the course of the presidential election campaign, a senior Left leader had dismissed President Kalam’s popularity as an ‘SMS’ phenomenon. Kalam, it was suggested, was an idol only for a section of the Indian middle-class whose voting preferences were not expressed in the ballot box but in much-hyped TV contests designed to pump up ratings and revenues. A presidential election, we were reminded, was fought in the electoral college of MPs and MLAs, not in air-conditioned television studios.
And yet, it is precisely because Kalam’s stature has stretched beyond the constituency of the neta that he is an important milestone in Indian public life. I have little doubt that if Kalam had to fight a general election in the heat and dust of non-metropolitan ‘real’ India, he would struggle. He would not fit in with the caste matrix, he would certainly not have the financial resources, and even his religion might actually work against him. But Kalam’s very unelectability in some parts of the country make him eminently appealing to the rest of the country.
To be dismissive of Kalam’s popularity as a limited urban middle-class phenomenon is to lose out on the tectonic socio-political changes taking place in the country. This is no longer an India where the dusty tracts of Jhabua or the distant roads of Jhoomritalaiya are entirely disconnected from the rest of the country. Today, the bright lights of a south Mumbai or a south Delhi have a glimmer that stretches beyond geographical confines. In this age of technology, millions of citizens share a unified dream, shaped by a desire for rapid upward mobility and the benefits of material growth. In this aspirational age, President Kalam is more than just another middle-class hero: he symbolises the hopes and ambitions of an emerging India, a new age guru for a new India.
In that sense, Kalam is very different to any previous middle-class hero. Middle-class icons in the past can be broadly fitted into two categories. The first are politicians who often, as a result of either personal idealism (e.g. Jawaharlal Nehru) or peculiar confluence of circumstances (e.g. V.P. Singh and Manmohan Singh), acquire a larger-than-life image. The other are those who strike out against the political class, and are seen to acquire an anti-establishment cult following among those who are convinced that the political class is venal (e.g. T.N. Seshan).
Kalam, on the other hand, is more than just a representative of middle-class India. He represents a more universal value system, one that many of us recognise is unattainable, but which nevertheless is enormously attractive. His remarkable personal integrity, for example, makes him a shining representative of a Gandhian-like lifestyle, which is seen to have been lost in the maddening hustle and bustle of an acquisitive society. We hate the white Ambassador with the lal batti as a symbol of unaccountable power. Kalam, by virtually rejecting the trappings of power even within the opulence of Rashtrapati Bhavan, restores a sense of belief in a certain old-world value system.
Nor is Kalam a khadi-clad hermit in an ashram, but rather uniquely someone who has the hairstyle of a rockstar and the mind of a scientist, making him as attractive to new India as he is to the old. That he isn’t simply some professional seminarist preaching rural development in a vacuum, but is a tech-savvy individual who has his own website, makes him someone who can bridge the generational divide that is seen to burden a country still coming to terms with modernity.
Indeed, it’s the very eccentricities of Kalam that have been his strength, imbuing the office of the presidency with a human touch that has been missing in the past. Rajendra Prasad carried the legacy of a freedom fighter; S. Radhakrishnan and Zakir Hussain the weight of academia. Their successors were politicians who were extensions of the prevailing ruling arrangement. Right through this period, the presidency seemed like a colonial relic, replete with the pomp and splendour of the erstwhile Viceroys and governor generals. Then, the presidency was about the grandeur of a Mughal Garden. In Kalam’s India, it became about the novelty and excitement of a herbal garden, of flying a Sukhoi, of being in a submarine or sharing a meal with jawans in Siachen. >b2>
Kalam may have been an NDA appointee, but it is to his credit that he is not seen as an NDA president today (ironically, the one false move he made was to allow the UPA government to enact the midnight murder of the constitution in Moscow while imposing president’s rule in Bihar). Equally importantly, while his being a member of a minority community might have helped elevate him to presidency, there is not a single occasion in the last six years when there has been even a whiff of religiosity associated with the Kalam persona. In that sense, he is a ‘living’ example of Indian secularism, free of the cynical politics that has reduced minority achievement to effete tokenism.
Indeed, it is the manner in which Kalam has changed our perceptions of the presidency that make it incumbent on the political class not to lose out on the opportunity to build on his legacy. Unfortunately, the Pratibha Patil versus Bhairon Singh Shekhawat contest has done precisely the opposite. Two provincial politicians slugging it out for the post of the country’s first citizen, the character of the contest has reminded us just how and why politics has become a backward sector of the economy.
In the end, Kalam’s real charm, perhaps, lay in the fact that he seemed impatient with the conventions of high office. Undoubtedly, in his own race to Raisina, he may have played the power game. Some have even accused him of being a great pretender. But the fact is that once he was president, Kalam seemed to not give a hang about power and pelf. No adoring family hung about him, he wore the same shabby bandgala to every function, the superbly eccentric hairstyle remained constant, as did the bright-eyed urgent and detailed expositions about this or that highly important welfare scheme that had caught his attention.Which is why, as Pratibha Patil gets ready to take over as President, she has a hard act to follow. Will she sit cross- legged on the ground, like her predecessor, and dive into a lively debate on journalistic ethics?