When A P J Abdul Kalam emerged as the choice of the then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee for the Presidency in June 2002, few in the Sangh questioned it.
He was an architect of the Indian defence and scientific establishment, he played the Veena, admired the Gita and weeks after the Gujarat riots, the choice of a Muslim candidate was seen as a salve to the bruised image of the NDA government.
No wonder it did not take Vajpayee much effort to market his candidature either with his coalition partners or with his opponents. Kalam’s record made him acceptable to Congress president Sonia Gandhi too. Thereafter came along Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav and the NCP. Since the Left could not have backed a candidate propped up by the BJP, it put up a token fight fielding Lakshmi Sahgal of INA-fame — she lost to Kalam by a big margin.
Known as the people’s President, he was the first occupant of the Rashtrapati Bhawan who connected to masses, particularly the youth, who accessed him via the internet.
Once elected, he was no pushover. Nor was he naive, as most people had feared when he assumed office. He decided to visit riot-torn Gujarat even though Vajpayee was not very comfortable over his travel plan. But, the real test for him came after the UPA came to power.
He returned the Office of Profit Bill to Parliament for a reconsideration in 2006 because he did not consider it fair and reasonable. It was not a common action if seen in the context of the fact that the bill sought to shield Sonia Gandhi against her disqualification as a Lok Sabha member from Rae Bareli. He appended his signatures to the bill after it had gone through a joint parliamentary committee and Sonia had, in any case, resigned from her seat and got re-elected to Lok Sabha.
He signed a proclamation imposing president’s rule on Bihar on May 23, 2005 while on a tour of Russia following a recommendation by state governor Buta Singh. The Supreme Court reversed the dissolution of the Bihar Assembly, describing it as unconstitutional. It was said that Kalam wanted to overcome his sense of remorse by putting in his papers, but ultimately decided to stay on.
Notwithstanding his simple lifestyle and unassuming disposition, he loved being the President. No surprise then that he was inclined to take another shot at office. He did make his intention known, but soon stepped aside after it turned out that he did not have enough support and things were working in favour of Pratibha Patil. His name surfaced again for the top job in 2012, but again, there were not enough people backing him.
There had been a theory that Kalam was reluctant to invite Sonia to form a government in May 2004 and had told her something which made her give up her claim and nominate Manmohan Singh as PM instead. However, he put all this to rest later.