Hours after he pulled out of a presidential contest that he was sure of losing, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam bounced back to doing what he loves best: igniting young minds toward building a better India. On Wednesday, he was off to Bangalore, part of his untiring crusade to meet as many youth as possible (he has met with seven million young people since he relinquished the President’s chair five years ago) and inspire them to change India by 2020. So then, what was a nice man like him doing getting mixed up in dirty political games?
It’s not easy to get past the wall of relentless positivity that the former president habitually puts up. It turns out that last week’s political embarrassment—when his many non-Congress political friends threw his hat into the presidential ring, seemingly with his consent—wasn’t really a loss of face after all. It was an opportunity for a challenge. “A unanimous election to the president’s post is not possible at any time,” Kalam points out. But he’s quite clear that he would never say “no” to a second go as president if he should ever emerge as a “consensus candidate”. And if any party can convince him that its agenda is only political development, then he is willing to risk it and “get into any position”.
You’d be led to think the man was power-hungry. But his is another kind of hunger: he is convinced that as president, he can inspire politicians to abandon their obsession with winning elections and focus instead on what he calls “a development agenda”. That is his plank: “I want one political party to say in its election manifesto, ‘I will develop this country in seven years’. And another to say, ‘No, we’ll take only five years to do that’.”
So how come he didn’t persuade them while he was president? “It’s a continuous process,” he says. When he was president, he was able to market his vision of an India developed by 2020. “The prime minister announced it in Parliament and included it in his Independence Day speech. Definitely, as president I was in a position to put forth the mission to people, Parliament and the political system.” And he feels the message is starting to sink in. “The time has come when people want to hear from our politicians when they will make India free from poverty.” Leaders feel the pressure, he says. “Wherever there’s development-related politics, leaders get elected two or three times. In several states, they’re getting elected again and again because they’re focusing on development.”
Kalam, of course, is optimistic enough to believe that he can push his agenda, whether or not he is in the Rashtrapati Bhavan. “Wherever I am, wherever I go, I can market my ideas. I have only one agenda that I constantly push and market: how to remove poverty in India. I talk to all sections of people across the political system, and wherever I go, I tell them how to do it.” No crusader could have been more zealous: in the 12 years since Kalam decided to make it his mission to lift India out of poverty, he has met an astounding 15 million youth, ranging from IIT and IIM students to children from municipal schools, orphans in Wayanad to students from Kentucky, engineers from steel plants to tribals from Chhattisgarh. His is a simple—some would say gratingly simplistic—message. His new ‘What Can I Give?’ programme is typical of the man. When addressing youth below 25, he makes them utter a simple oath: to make their mothers happy, to fight corruption by persuading their fathers to renounce it and to protect the environment. A happy and clean home is the foundation of a prosperous country, according to Kalam.
Evidently, the message has appeal, because the invitations from those wishing to hear it haven’t stopped pouring in. In the five years since he left Rashtrapati Bhavan, the former president’s office estimates, Kalam has addressed 2,000 meetings across India and abroad. That makes for an average of 33 meetings a month! Nor does he limit his message’s reach to the youth. There are the innumerable speeches to chambers of commerce, industry, political parties—“whoever wants me.” He recently addressed, for example, a conclave on the development of Uttar Pradesh, attended by nearly 500 people, including chief minister Akhilesh Yadav.
Sometimes, the vagaries of weather and air travel result in Kalam landing up at a public meeting hours behind schedule. Just last year, for example, he touched down in Wayanad for the launch of an educational portal project well after midnight. But the students gathered at the auditorium still waited up till 1 am until he could finally address them.
Is it his still-growing popularity that keeps him going—even now, at 80? That keeps him tireless despite one of the most punishing schedules on the road? It’s not popularity, insists Kalam, but “a mutual attraction”. He’s drawn to youth, who he believes can change the world, and “they also are drawn to me because I have a mission. They want power, they want to see India as a developed nation. That is their dream. I share that dream.”
But the desire to keep going also springs from Kalam’s deep-seated need to teach. While he was president, he never lacked for opportunities on that score. He would call over batches of MPs to the Rashtrapati Bhavan and deliver PowerPoint lectures, he would invite not just school and college children, but also farmers, sarpanches, postmen, the physically challenged, among others. No one went away without receiving a dose of Kalam’s instruction. He also found time to oversee a couple of research students and guided them through their PhDs. And when leaders of the SAARC countries came for tea, he told them what their mission should be. As he points out: “The Constitution does not prevent the president from giving a mission to a nation, or to Africa.”
That urge to teach still burns. Just last week, for example, even in the midst of the presidential candidature confusion, Kalam dashed off a letter to prime minister Manmohan Singh, urging him to use his economic expertise to hike up economic growth.”He is an economic expert and should concentrate on that.”
Which is probably why when I ask him if he would rather be president or prime minister, he retorts: “I prefer to be a teacher.” Then seeing my expression, he breaks into an unexpected chuckle: “I disappointed you, didn’t I?”