Thursday, July 05, 2007

A dramatic President

The netizen, Abdul Kalam, replies to around 70 emails every day. It's mostly enthusiastic school children whom the President prefers to converse with. So when Ajay Kumar, editor of an obscure portal, the, casually sent Kalam an email in January, inviting him to the three-day Global Resurgence Bihar Meet, it was a shot in the dark. Neither Kumar nor the Bihar government, the co-organiser of the meet, could believe it when Kalam wrote back accepting the invitation.

Today Biharis adore the 76-year-old Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam with as much vengeance as they hate their own politicians. In the last five years, Kalam has visited Bihar four times, prompting a Patna-based journalist to rave, "No president has shown so much interest in the development of Bihar. In that way he is even ahead of Dr Rajendra Prasad, the country's first President, who was from Bihar."

When he became the country's 11th President on July 25, 2002, replacing the dalit scholar-diplomat K R Narayanan, the BJP-led NDA immediately hailed him as a "secular" trophy. Though Muslim, Kalam is the very antithesis of the Hindu-chauvinist stereotype of the Indian Muslim. He is fanatically vegetarian, reads the Bhagwad Gita, plays the veena, and is known to invoke not the Koran but the Hindu sages Thiagarjaswamingal and Thiruvalluvar.

The nomination of Kalam to the country's highest post was not celebrated in traditional Muslim pockets. The late Islamic scholar Rafiq Zakaria had upset many of his friends in the Sangh Parivar when he penned a provocatively titled newspaper article, "What is Muslim about Abdul Kalam?" and went on to prove that Kalam had never shown interest in the affairs of the Muslims.

Kalam may not be comfortable among the people of his faith, but is certainly fond of many other species. Like the flowers and birds that he has painstakingly patronised in the Mughal Gardens. When the shy, silver-maned scientist called on nonagenarian writer-columnist Khushwant Singh at the latter's Sujan Singh Park house in Delhi earlier this year, the President took along 100 red roses as a gift.

He confessed to the adorable "dirty" Sardar, "I have documented the birds and trees in Rashtrapati Bhavan. There are 140 species of birds and 200 varieties of trees, some 30 of them unique." Apart from turning the well-maintained Mughal Gardens into a veritable zoo, Kalam has also created a science museum at the 340-room mansion. Models of missiles, rocket launchers and photographs depicting India's military might decorate the visitors' room at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

"It looks more like a scientist's den than the President's drawing room," recalls a journalist who has been Kalam's guest a few times. Working late into the night (a habit he carries from his days in the Indian Space Research Organisation and Defence Research Development Organisation where he would be sequestered in the labs for weeks on end, often in shorts and a banyan).

Kalam sleeps five hours a day. And has a very deep relationship with idli-sambar. "He eats with his hand, digging his fingers deep into the sambar bowl," says a Mumbai journalist who has dined with him. Kalam is cautious enough not to walk into a trap.

A journalist who interviewed him a decade ago recalls how the scientist ensured that the interview didn't get published before he had okayed it. "He sent a defence officer on a motorbike to get a hard copy of the interview (the internet had not arrived then)," recalls the journo. "After deleting certain sentences, Kalam called me and told me to carry only the corrected version. I objected, arguing that I had him on tape. But he would not listen and ultimately we carried what he had okayed."

Though he has deftly built up an image of a humble, shy scientist, Kalam has been known to be pushy. A source who has closely watched Kalam says that the during Pokhran II in 1998, the then Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) chairman R Chidambaram, the real architect of the nuclear test, was left in the shade while Kalam hogged the limelight. "The media, including the New York Times credited Kalam with the test even when Kalam's only contribution was the missile part," says the source.

A keen career planner, the much-revered "missile man" has almost frimed up his next vocation, which he will no doubt plunge into once he vacates the former Viceregal Lodge in Lutyen's Delhi. He has already ignited the minds of millions, including Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, with the idea of reviving the ancient Nalanda University. The Rs 1,000-crore project is being aided by China and Japan is under way and Kalam may head it.

Kalam is not about to walk into the sunset. He would rather walk into the arms of millions of Biharis, including those of editor Ajay Kumar.
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