Some years ago, I happened to be in Louisville, Kentucky, famous for having given the world Muhammad Ali and a baseball bat called the Louisville Slugger. This is the American south—conservative, Bible-thumping, bourbon-sipping aristocrats with a reputation for insularity. Imagine my surprise when in my hotel lobby, I saw a board announcing a lecture by A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. It seemed odd that the former president had been invited by the local chapter of Rotary International to deliver a talk in Louisville, of all places. Intrigued, I entered the hall and there was no mistaking that goofy hairstyle, that deferential demeanour, the simplicity of his message—science and humanity—and the delivery style, like he was lecturing 10-year-old students. The hall was packed, and not with nris but local Americans, mostly white. He had launched into biotechnology when I had to leave, but it struck me that the Kalam effect was not just confined to India but had a global resonance.
It’s all to do with aura and context and the ‘halo effect’. In India, we bestow our scientists who master rockets and missiles with a magical, if militaristic, aura. Kalam’s journey, from humble origins to riding the presidential chariot, though with a commoner’s charm, added to the mystique. Then there was the context: an apolitical Muslim elevated to the highest post in the land by a BJP government. Simple living and high thinking is an attractive Gandhian construct, and Kalam demonstrated both. Then there was his informality which allowed him to connect with a large mass of Indians, and not just the youth, bestowing on him the stamp of the ‘people’s president’. Beyond all this lies the halo effect. It is a recognised psychological term used to describe a cognitive bias in which positive feelings about a person in one area can cause neutral traits to be also viewed positively. The person has effectively acquired a halo.
This magical aura transcends everything else. Kalam had his neutral side. It is no secret that he lobbied for another presidential term. Or that his achievements in rocketry had more to do with reverse engineering (jugaad) than original inventiveness. These were effectively hidden behind the blinding light of the halo, an odd fit for his unique hairstyle, half Beatle half Einstein. Yet, he carried it off with a rustic flair, becoming one with fabulism, where reality and myth and allegory converged. Grey-haired bachelors (he was 84) with advanced scientific or academic credentials tend to acquire a certain gravitas, and Kalam deserved the accolades and affection he received in life and death. He did also benefit by comparison. In India’s presidential pantheon, he stood head and shoulders above his immediate predecessors. A Muslim who could quote chapter and verse from the Gita, play a complex instrument like the veena, and publicly state that his ultimate guru was Pramukh Swami, the head of the Swaminarayan sect, made him not just different, but adorably unique. His child-like simplicity was an instant hit.
Even his naivety became essential to the character. His mantra to remove corruption involved teachers and parents; his prediction that India could become a superpower by 2020 and his televised chat with students where he says, ‘Repeat after me’, was derided by many as unbecoming of a president, yet the fact that he defeated all criticism and emerged triumphant is no mean achievement. Few presidents have been prolific as authors of inspirational books, or as zealous as promoters of a knowledge-based society. At the Shillong lecture where he collapsed, he was speaking on sustainability, an area that is generally given short shrift in the lunge for development. It is no coincidence that Kalam’s favourite book was Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Rand’s goal was to show how desperately the world needs prime movers and what happens to a world without them.
In India’s crabs-in-a-basket syndrome, prime movers are a rarity, but Kalam had the universal appeal, the credibiity and the public support to become one. Certainly, he seems to have been sidelined by his obsessive love for teaching. No one can fault him for that but there will always be the lingering thought that Kalam could have done more in public life than just being the ‘people’s president’. The legacy he leaves behind is a Twitter handle, ‘In memory of Dr Kalam’, the 20 books he authored, the ennobling memories of those who knew him, and the standards he set in public life. The halo effect will eventually fade. Yet, if he has ignited one young mind with his thoughts and deeds, then that will be a legacy far greater than the vvips whose elaborate memorials line the banks of the Yamuna.