Updated: July 29, 2015 5:34:31 pm
A.P.J. Abdul Kalam redefined the Indian Presidency. When he came to the office as the 11th president in July 2002, the head of state was seen to be the titular head who drew attention to himself and his office only when sombre Constitutional questions were thrown up in the aftermath of an uncertain electoral verdict. For the rest, the President of India was to be wrapped and enclosed in dignified and ceremonial hauteur. The year 2002 had also been a particularly fraught year. The Gujarat violence had exposed deep communal faultlines in the nation. In that divided political moment, in a masterstroke, the Atal Behari Vajpayee government selected Kalam as its presidential candidate, the Congress lent him its support and Kalam was elected with just a little less than 90 per cent of the valid votes. Barely a month after assuming office, President Kalam visited riot-ravaged Gujarat over the objections of the government of the day. And almost from Day One he began to open up the presidency to the people.
He was the Thiruvalluvar-quoting scientist who became head of state, opening wider the possibility of the non-politician, and the outsider to the political system, presiding over it. Long before discontent with the political class would spill on to the streets of the nation’s capital in the form of the Anna movement and become the propulsive force for the meteoric rise of the Aam Aadmi Party, it was Kalam, perhaps, who answered the need, in cynical times, for the role model who had no axe to grind. He could quote from the Gita as from the Koran. He spoke directly, with child-like enthusiasm, to the young, many years before it had become fashionable to invoke and refer to India’s “demographic dividend”. He embodied a positive solution-centric approach that made people believe that despite the hurdles, the prejudices and the political turbulence, greatness was at hand — it just needed ignited minds and a Vision 20:20.
In 2005, in Moscow, in the dead of night, President Kalam unquestioningly approved the Union Cabinet’s decision to impose President’s rule in Bihar. That was a low point in his presidency, which his then secretary would later record in his memoirs, almost led him to resign. A year later, in 2006, President Kalam returned a controversial bill, expressing concern over the lack of “unambiguous” definition of what constitutes an “office of profit”. He signed it later after it was sent back to him but he had made his point. The “people’s president” was someone who had an acute sense of the moral authority his post vested in him even though it gave him only limited powers.
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