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Kalam’s final misstep

As he prepares to leave office, Kalam has committed one final, unnecessary mistake. He has let his vanity get the better of him, writes Vir Sanghvi.Write to the author

india Updated: Jun 02, 2007 15:00 IST
Vir Sanghvi

It’s a funny thing to admit now but when Abdul Kalam’s name was first proposed as President of India, many of those who cheered the choice (myself included) knew very little about the man himself. What we enthusiastically welcomed was the idea of Kalam.

Some of you will remember the days that preceded the emergence of Kalam’s candidacy. The Congress had suggested giving President KR Narayanan a second term. The BJP, as the party in power, had turned down the proposal arguing that it had been decades since any President got a second term. Instead, it suggested PC Alexander’s name to the annoyance of many in its old guard, who thought that Bhairon Singh Shekhawat was a better candidate. The Alexander candidacy died when the Congress said no and the NDA allies were unenthusiastic (then, as now, the balance of votes in the electoral college was precarious).

Brajesh Mishra (then principal secretary to Prime Minister AB Vajpayee) met with Natwar Singh (representing the Congress leadership) to evolve a consensus. They came up with the name of the sitting Vice-President Krishan Kant, who was nobody’s man, having swung the job during the freak prime ministership of Inder Gujral. Krishan Kant was informed that he would be the next President, accepted congratulations, opened boxes of mithai etc.

Then, the BJP leadership, which was never very keen on Mishra, got in on the act. How dare he agree on a candidate without checking with them? LK Advani was said to be incandescent with rage. Vajpayee looked for a way out. The Alexander candidacy was briefly revived and then dropped. Krishan Kant was told to seal up the mithai boxes again.

In the middle of all this sordid manoeuvring (reminds you of the last few weeks, doesn’t it?), a search for a compromise candidate began. There is some dispute over who came up with Kalam’s name. Perhaps Mulayam Singh suggested it. Perhaps George Fernandes did. Perhaps the idea originated from Chandrababu Naidu. But the frazzled BJP agreed at once to the candidacy. The Congress, also as weary, said it would go along. The Left, which had no objections to Kalam at all but pouted at not being consulted, refused to back him and put up its own symbolic, no-hoper candidate.

Nearly every newspaper in the country welcomed the choice of Kalam. All we knew then was that he was a low-profile defence scientist who had played some role in India’s missile and nuclear programmes. Few of us even knew what he looked like.

But we welcomed the idea of a consensus. We were relieved that the BJP, still reeling from Gujarat, had come up with a Muslim. And we liked the idea that the job would go to a non-politician — especially as India’s politicians had made us puke with their wrangling over suitable candidates.

What few of us expected was that Kalam would turn out to be such a middle class hero. Part of his appeal (and if you doubt that they love him in every Rotary Club across the land, just check any SMS poll on the best choice for next President) comes from his personality: that kooky haircut, that shuffling gait, that maverick style, that fondness for little children etc.

But there’s another reason: a middle class that is fed up of politicians loves it that India’s first citizen is not a politician but an outsider; that he is one of us.

This view is not entirely well-founded. Kalam may not be a politician himself but he has spent his life around politicians. Like Dr Manmohan Singh when he became finance minister in 1991, he may be a non-politician but he’s very much an insider. Dr Singh had spent decades advising politicians about economics and so knew them well. Kalam had spent years telling them about weapon systems and knew how to play the game (for instance, he dutifully called them all — Amar Singh included — ‘sir’).

Nor is he middle class in the sense that we understand it. He has no family, no lady friends, and no interest in the things that define middle class India: worrying about educating our children, enjoying the new prosperity, watching TV serials, planning holidays etc. Rather, he is, to use his own favourite term, a brahmachari; a man who is proud of having given up on the things that the middle class so desires.

But, by some fortuitous accident of timing, he became President when India was changing in ways that he understood. His first address to the nation was a power-point presentation. A decade ago, this would have seemed demeaning to the office of President. But in this era it seemed entirely appropriate. When Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai visited India last year, Kalam treated him, his entire delegation and much of the Indian Cabinet to another power-point presentation at an otherwise formal function. The Afghans were gobsmacked and the Indians looked down at their shoes. But Kalam was undeterred. Oblivious to the silence in the room, he ended by declaring, “This presentation will now go on my website. Please log on for further info.”

Politicos may have believed that this style was more suited to an inflight announcement than an address by the leader of the world’s largest democracy, but India loved this approach. In a land where almost 70 per cent of the population is below 35 and where computers and call centres are the new buzzwords, Kalam’s tech-friendly approach to “igniting young minds” grabbed the middle class imagination.

As a President, however, Kalam’s record has been undistinguished. He’s had his share of unpopular decisions (on such issues as President’s Rule), of disagreements with elected governments (asking Vajpayee to resign when the general elections were declared) and embarrassing foreign visits. And unlike Narayanan, who stood up to be counted on such issues as Gujarat, it is hard to think of a single issue of substance where Kalam has made a difference or even taken a stand (the mercy petitions in the Parliament attack case, for instance).

His fans say that he has transformed the presidency but I think they overstate the case. The presidency itself is unchanged (it will be back to the old days if Pratibha Patil gets in) and so is the relationship between the President and the government. All Kalam has done is to transform the way in which the middle class regards this President — and that transformation won’t last. A previous middle class hero, TN Seshan, whose media image rivalled Kalam’s, probably had a more lasting impact: the Election Commission was never the same after Seshan.

And now, as he prepares to leave office, Kalam has committed one final, unnecessary mistake. He has let his vanity get the better of him and has joined in the very political machinations that he was supposed to remain loftily above.

Before the NDA went for Shekhawat, a delegation called on Kalam to offer him a second term. Instead of saying that he’d had his moment in the sun and would now move on, the President indicated that he wanted to stay on at Rashtrapati Bhawan provided he was a consensus candidate.

Because it was clear that this would never happen, the BJP (which had called on him as a formality) cheerfully backed Shekhawat. Then the UPA chose Pratibha Patil and got the Left and BSP on board. It now appeared to have a clear majority in the electoral college.

That should have been that. But when the leaders of the Third Front (who command less than 10 per cent of the votes) met to try and disrupt the certainties of the election, they decided to offer their nomination to Kalam. Apparently, they expected him to say no.

Instead, to the horror to everyone who had admired him, Kalam now changed his position. He would stand, he said, if he was certain of victory. No mention of consensus was made.

Now, it was all about winning.

What made him do it? Why did a man whose nomination had come as such a relief after the political wrangles of five years ago suddenly plunge headlong into exactly the same sort of political wrangling? Did he not realise that he risked the accumulated goodwill of five years by showing such greed?

I have a charitable explanation. I think he was overwhelmed by letters, texts and emails from his Rotary/Lions Club constituency. His own staff, who are eager to stay on at Rashtrapati Bhavan, probably fed his vanity by telling him that he was the obvious candidate, loved by all of India but hated only by the political class.

And I think that at some crucial moment, Kalam’s greed and ambition, kept under check for so long, suddenly came to the fore. Yes, he said to himself, I am the popular choice. I must find a way of getting elected.

But of course he couldn’t. And so, the shamefaced withdrawal came a couple of days later. By then, alas, the damage was done.

Like Seshan before him — now forgotten because the middle class believed that his ego had overcome his sense of duty — Abdul Kalam now risks life in forgotten obscurity, his five years at Rashtrapati Bhawan forgotten by the class he once so entertained.

If he does end up forgotten and neglected like Seshan, I will feel sorry for him. He wasn’t a great President. But he was an important symbol of an India in transition. And a single moment of unseemly greed should not cloud his entire record.

Email: counterpoint@hindustantimes.com