The eruption of condolence messages on social media and across social, religious and political divides, for former President APJ Abdul Kalam is a clear indicator of his universal appeal. Before one starts to sing paeans to our late president, it is imperative to recall some his major scientific achievements. It was under the stewardship of Dr Kalam that the Rohini satellite was put in the near earth orbit with the first indigenous Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV-III) in 1980. In the subsequent decade, as chief of the Integrated Missile Development Programme, he was responsible for the development and operationalisation of the AGNI and PRITHVI missiles.
Next in his long list of accomplishments was of course, his role as the chief project coordinator for the <g data-gr-id="39">Pokhran II</g> nuclear tests, after which India entered the league of countries armed with a nuclear weapon. At this juncture, however, it is imperative to remember the words of Robert Oppenheimer, the man behind America’s atom bomb project in the 1940s. “The atomic bomb made the prospect of future war unendurable. It has led us up those last few steps to the mountain pass; and beyond there is a different country.” Moral ambiguities aside, like Oppenheimer, Dr Kalam soon became a strong advocate of nuclear disarmament and world peace. “India can live without nuclear weapons. That’s our dream,” Dr Kalam once said. As a scientist in the defence establishment, however, Kalam served his nation with dignity, grace and dedication. It is hard to fault someone for doing their job.
It was his time as President of India, however, which remained etched in the collective of memory of this nation. He offered a vision of politics that was closest to the people’s hearts, and who, according to former BJP ideologue Sudheendra Kulkarni, “did not allow his unfamiliarity with politics to handicap him in discharging his duties as the custodian of the Constitution”. One of his qualities as President, which especially endeared him to the youth of this country, was his relentless focus on the big picture and the promise of a creating a new and better India. In many ways, one can see the striking similarity he shared with India’s first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Both individuals, one could argue, held an unwavering faith in the ability of science and technology to solve human problems.
In a nation that worships engineers, Kalam was a man who personified the vocation; a man always on the lookout for solutions. In this respect, Dr Kalam’s Vision Twenty Twenty was a step in that direction. Whether his ideas were coherent or not to most people, he shared with Nehru the hope and promise of a new future for India. At every function or gathering he attended, Kalam offered practical solutions to development concerns. One such innovative idea was PURA (Provision of Urban Amenities in Rural Areas), a programme which the future governments at the Centre brought forth. As noted social scientist Pratap Bhanu had written in a column at the end of Dr Kalam’s tenure as President, “We have politicians and policy-makers divided into two camps: those who claim to speak for Shining India and those who claim to speak for India Left Behind. It was Kalam’s remarkable feat to be able to speak for both.”
More than any politician in recent history, Dr Kalam was the true embodiment of this nation’s secular spirit. In his oft quote book, titled, Transcendence, Dr Kalam writes, “As a ten-year-old boy, I recall three contrasting personalities meet from time to time in our home: Pakshi Lakshmana Shastrigal, the Vedic scholar and head priest of the famous Rameswaram Temple; Rev. Father <g data-gr-id="38">Bodal</g>, who built the first church on Rameswaram Island; and my father, who was an imam in the mosque. These three would sit in our courtyard, each with a cup of tea; and they would discuss and find solutions to the various problems facing our community.” Dr Kalam’s constant emphasis on dialogue and conflict resolution, one could argue, stemmed from his humble, yet dynamically secular background. The man from the small southern town of Rameswaram was a true Bharat Ratna, if ever such an entity existed.