EVER SINCE his nomination as the presidential candidate of the ruling National Democratic Alliance, A. P. J. Abdul Kalam has become the subject of a media debate. Dr. Kalam, a great scientist with an imaginative mind, might become a very successful President. But there are many challenges before him. The first and foremost among them is to preserve the great standards set by his predecessor, K. R. Narayanan.
Before Mr. Narayanan, many eminent leaders and thinkers occupied that position. Almost all of them played their constitutional roles, sometimes taking sides with the ruling classes/parties. The lifestyles of some became controversial mostly in relation to their socio-cultural and religious lives. But no President, except Mr. Narayanan, had raised questions of national importance taking an ideological position in favour of the subaltern classes and castes. Mr. Narayanan did that with a great balance of mind that is perhaps matched only by the late American President, Abraham Lincoln.
Mr. Narayanan's pro-underdog ideological stance and the way he stood by such ideological positions were quite creative and balanced. He has the intellectual craftsmanship and a tremendous amount of commitment to the cause of the poor. His conduct in office and the brilliant speeches he gave on occasions such as Independence Day-eve, where he had the freedom to choose the content and language, established that a President can play a pro-poor role within the framework of the Constitution.
A much-praised President such as Rajendra Prasad never drew the Government's attention to poverty and untouchability. With his image as philosopher, S. Radhakrishnan remained a proactive practitioner of Hinduism. Shankar Dayal Sharma's tenure was filled with visits to temples and quite a large sum of state money was spent on his personal whims and fancies. Mr. Narayanan's spiritual preferences were his private business and did not enter the public domain. Nor did he allow the political forces that proposed his name to use the office in any partisan manner. In the case of Dr. Kalam, the Hindutva sections within the NDA are likely to see his cultural liberalism as Indianised Islam and present him as a symbol of Indian Islam. Here, Mr. Narayanan remains his immediate ideal.
It is not a question of how much of the Constitution a President knows, as some people are arguing in relation to Dr. Kalam's candidature. For a scientist and thinker of his eminence, understanding the Constitution and applying it to concrete situations with the advice of experts will not be a problem. The real problem will be in not getting his scientific temper coated with spiritual texts by appeasing political forces that strive to get his stamp on their brand of communalism.
Mr. Narayanan, even during his most memorable speeches, did not quote from any spiritual text. Rather, he quoted political leaders and thinkers. While in office Dr. Kalam may have to learn a bit of India's philosophical history. He attained the present eminence in his chosen field without any foreign degree and without working in foreign laboratories, proving that Indian institutions are capable of producing a scientist of his worth. If he treads Mr. Narayanan's path, he could construct a scientific philosophy of his own drawing upon his vast experience.
Mr. Narayanan and Dr. Kalam share a great commonality in that both experienced poverty during childhood. But by training they are different. Mr. Narayanan had had a lot of global exposure and interacted with a whole range of politicians and diplomats. With that background one would have expected him to become a mere diplomatic President and live a life of luxury in Rashtrapathi Bhavan without raising issues that affect the poor. But he chose to be a President of the poor, Dalits and Adivasis.
What made Lincoln an outstanding President was that he represented the interests of the most un-represented African-Americans. Mr. Narayanan became a President of Dalits and Adivasis by constantly pleading for their cause. Similarly, if Dr. Kalam can become the President of all those who have lost every thing in communal riots all these years and got nothing back from this system; if he can become the President of poor children unable even to study under street lights as he himself did, the nation can have hope.
Science in itself is not pro-poor or pro-rich. But the way education and science were made to serve the rich forced many Kalams to remain illiterate in the villages and the urban slums. Unfortunately, a section of the media is projecting Dr. Kalam as a missile man, ignoring the contribution he made to other areas of science. Missiles are meant to serve the cause of war. In the context of the competing jingoism in the subcontinent, they might serve the purpose of deterrence or destruction. If poverty remains at the present levels, no missiles can make the nation strong. The other challenge before Dr. Kalam is to see that the whole apparatus of science is geared to improve the lives of the poor.
The political forces that proposed Dr. Kalam do not want to promote astronomy in our educational institutions. They want to promote astrology. An astrology-centered education system will not produce more Kalams but produce men and women who believe in palmistry. Dr. Kalam as the head of state has to change the direction of our education system. Mr. Narayanan showed how a so-called figurehead position could be used in a meaningful way. He also proved that as President one could be completely neutral in terms of party affiliations. Dr. Kalam is going into Rashtrapathi Bhavan without any party affiliation and political preference. But the way the Hindutva forces are interpreting his lifestyle indicates a dangerous trend. He is being shown as the most-Hinduised Muslim. His challenge is to stop this interpretation of him.
Dr. Kalam has to ensure that his being President is not misused to serve the Hindutva agenda. Some say he should have turned down the offer as it came immediately after Gujarat. I feel that it is better to accept that offer and ensure that such carnages do not recur. After all, the reason the BJP and the Shiv Sena wanted to make P. C. Alexander President was to show him as a Christian showpiece to the West and stop the missionary educational activity in India. Dr. Kalam must ensure that more children will not be rendered orphans as in Gujarat.