Sunny Side Down
Why Abdul Kalam was the 'People's President'
Even after his demise, this fierce nationalist will continue to be an inspiration for everyone.
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He remains undoubtedly the most loved and admired Indian after Jawaharlal Nehru and in sheer numbers, easily tens of thousands more, adored him than the first prime minister of India. What has made Avul Pakir Jainulabudeen Abdul Kalam (who told me that I was the first one who asked him for his full name way back in July 1980) so is his raising and being, a low profile one with modest beginnings hawking newspapers for the extra buck at that, in his first 50 years. It is this that made him the fierce nationalist that he was and continued to be an inspirational Indian to newer generations of younger Indians even in his 60s, 70s and 80s. And true to his life, particularly the years after he was president, he passed on while lecturing at the Indian Institute of Management, Shillong.
These striking qualities of an endearing human being with a self effacing nature were evident when I met him for the first time in July 1980 moments after his very first crowning moments of triumph as a rocket engineer after the launch of the SLV -3 successfully from the Sriharikota space station. At first, he suggested that I speak to the then chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Prof Satish Dhawan, whom he described as one of the three founding architects of the space programme. The other two were ISRO's founder Dr Vikram Sarabhai and Dr Brahm Prakash, who headed the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, Thiruvananthapuram. And it is the trio whom he named and recalled just before he took over as the President of India.
After some persuasion, Kalam agreed to an interview - the first he gave to a journalist - not just about what engineers and scientists have done but what they ought to do in the years ahead in line what was then called the slogan of self reliance and now make in India. Then and later when he moved from Thiruvananthapuram to head the DRDL in Hyderabad he kept a low profile even though the then Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister Dr VS Arunachalam described Kalam to me as his "prize catch". What a determined Kalam did at the DRDL with the help of equally committed colleagues like R.N. Agarwal was to quietly "weaponise" what was initially developed as rocketry to nurture and stabilise India's missile programme. Even then few outside the rarified world of scientists and engineers working in state research and development laboratories, more so that of defence related work, knew or cared for them.
So, it was when he came back after the successful launch of the Agni missile from Bhubhaneshwar on an Indian Airlines flight at Hyderabad's Begumpet airport. None among his co-passengers or those at the airport knew or recognised him. And as usual, Kalam in trade mark blue shirt breezed into the terminal when I congratulated him only to be told that we would meet for the interview the next day. At the end of that interview he mentioned recalling our first meeting way back in 1980 that he wants to put down all that has been done to better Indian science and technology, implying his career, in a book form. When Kalam and his scientist associate Arun Tiwari, along with another confidante Maj Gen R Swaminathan got the first draft ready they asked for help in finding an academics oriented publisher. That is how a longstanding friend Madhu Reddy of Universities Press, of the erstwhile Orient Longman group, in Hyderabad got the manuscript for his first bestseller Wings of Fire.
Thereafter, drawing on the impulses of the teacher in him, Kalam has published several inspirational and instructional books and spoken at different fora on where India and Indians should be headed. He may have been happier doing that all his life, like he did consistently after his presidential years, had not his stint as scientific adviser to the defence minister, involvement with India's nuclear ambitions, a special relationship with Mulayam Singh Yadav, and a number of other well wishers not paved the way for him to become what he truly was and be best remembered as - the "People's President".