Neither vigyan, nor jawan

Pokhran II experiment carried out in May 1998 was flashed to the world with APJ Abdul Kalam standing besides prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The poet in Vajpayee had applauded the scientific achievement and declared it to the world in his own inimitable style with the slogan Jai Vigyan. The images of Kalam standing besides Vajpayee, transformed the 'Missile Man' into 'Father of Indian Nuclear Programme'. Which was vehemently contested by the scientific community as nearly a quarter of a century earlier, India had carried out its first nuclear explosion on 18 May 1974 under the stewardship of Raja Ramana.

Soon after he had managed to juxtapose himself alongside Vajpayee and gained eminence, Kalam started to pitch himself as a 'visionary and thinker'. I recall the launch of his book India 2020: A Vision for the New Millennium. It was at the India International Centre (IIC), sometime after the Pokhran experiment. Kalam was still basking in the borrowed hallow, which rightly belonged to the scientists of Bhabha Atomic Reserach Centre (BARC) and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).

As he started to reel out his 'vision', I felt having read about them somewhere. His 'vision', I realised, was liberally borrowed from the papers of the Planning Commission which issues detailed documents containing the justification of the contents of a plan. Kalam had relied heavily on the 7th Five Year Plan document, which had given a big push to the technology. I had made an innocent query at the end of his long monologue, 'how was your vision for India different from what’s already given out in our plan documents'?

He had blurted out something before my space was usurped by an emerging television personality, who today heads a prominent English channel, and Kalam had lapped up the opportunity to overcome his discomfort. Later a senior colleague from print had told me that she hoped that the camera sees through the man. Unfortunately television cameras in India have created more mirages than true images.

With the expansion of television, Kalam continued to gain in 'public' stature and a few years later his name was floated for the presidentship. My former boss had by then emerged as part of the think tank of the government of the day.  On an early summer morning of 2002, a prominent retired general, an alumnus of my school, had surprised me with a call. He had wanted my boss to convey to the prime minister, whose ear the general believed he had, that Kalam had only hype and no substance. He had mentioned that they should instead consider lieutenant general JFR Jacob, the true hero of Bangladesh.

Jacob was from Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) rank and file having built the party's strategic and security affairs cell in association with likes of lieutenant general K P Candeth, the western army commander during the 1971 war. Jacob had been tested politically as governor of Goa and Punjab. I passed the message to my boss, who replied, 'Decision in favour of Kalam has been taken and I would not really now want to sing a different tune'.

The general again called next morning and I told him verbatim what my boss had said. 'He is neither a jawan, nor vigyan. How unfortunate that such seasoned statesmen are not able to read a man correctly,' he lamented, referring to Vajpayee's choice.

A decade later, the 'visionary' president has tried to besmirch Vajpayee's image by claiming that the latter had reservations about his visit to Gujarat after the post-Godhra riots. Vajpayee's dilemma has been very succinctly explained by former Union Minister and Bihar BJP president C P Thakur. 'Vajpayee's unease at Kalam's visit to Gujarat was only natural as no government of the day would like the constitutional head to visit a state ravaged with strife,' Thakur said.

If one carefully reads the excerpts of Kalam's latest book Turning Points, one would find that the attempt to demean Vajpayee has been made only for self-aggrandisement. He writes further, 'I told the PM, 'I consider it an important duty so that I can be of some use to remove the pain and also accelerate the relief activities and bring about a unity of minds, which is my mission, as I stressed in my address during the swearing-in ceremony.' There could not have been anything more despicable on the part of a former president to make public conversations with an ailing former prime minister, who is not in a position to reply.   

How much did he succeed in his Gujarat mission is a matter of debate but the context of his latest book is pretty clear – mission to mend fences with the Congress and its first family. Fortunately, the Congress has the maturity, from a longer exposure to power, to see through the designs of those who have lived all their lives on government hospitality.

The book attempts to mollify the Congress first family by claiming that Kalam even had an appointment letter for Sonia Gandhi ready but got it changed after she decided to nominate Manmohan Singh for the job of the prime minister. Kalam takes pains to explain that he had sent the office of profit bill back to parliament 'because of concerns over certain provisions of the draft legislation than any link to the controversy surrounding Sonia Gandhi at that time'.

I am not surprised that he decided to speak at a time when his return to president's house could have been facilitated with the support of the Congress party. Poor Kalam, Congress refused to bite the bait and he has now lost trust of the National Democratic Alliance( NDA) too.

Sidharth Mishra is president, Centre for Reforms, Development and Justice, and consulting editor,
Millennium Post.
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