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A man in mission-mode

B. G. Verghese
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Kalam disproved the notion that the President is only a constitutional ornament

TURNING POINTS — A Journey Through Challenges: A. P. J. Abdul Kalam; HarperCollins Publishers, A-53, Sector 57, Noida-201301. Rs. 199.
TURNING POINTS — A Journey Through Challenges: A. P. J. Abdul Kalam; HarperCollins Publishers, A-53, Sector 57, Noida-201301. Rs. 199.

B. G. Verghese

The book reflects the man — simple, unsophisticated, dedicated, secular, self-made, a visionary, child-like in some ways and charmingly innocent in his breakouts from rigid protocol. His mission was to “ignite” minds to build a better and greater India. Though some eyebrows were raised when Dr Kalam was elevated to the Presidency, his work and conduct in office won him praise and affection from ordinary people who saw him as a People’s President. His vision was to see India become a Developed Society by 2020 with PURA (provision of urban amenities in rural areas) among the engines of change.

Rashtrapati Bhavan became an open house, especially for children, youth and scientists and a social laboratory. He was a man with a mission and sought to operationalise his ideas in “mission mode”. Though non-political, Dr Kalam had an astute sense of political and constitutional propriety and measured up to the political challenges he confronted during his term in office. He also disproved the strange notion that the President is no more than a constitutional ornament, a figurehead with no real role to play. When delicate issues confronted him he acted boldly in accordance with constitutional advice and the dictates of his own conscience.

Not a yes-man

Turning Points: A Journey Through Challenges well illustrates the point. He returned the Office of Profit Bill to Parliament to tidy up the concept — the first time a Bill had been sent back for reconsideration. He was deeply disturbed by the UPA government’s decision to dissolve the suspended Bihar Assembly in 2005 even before it could meet on the ground that the Governor had reported that efforts were being made to cobble together a majority by illegal means. The matter had been referred to the Supreme Court before which the President desired that his views should be placed through the Government counsel. Not satisfied that this had been done in the manner desired, Dr Kalam decided to resign office after approving the dissolution and was with some effort persuaded to withdraw his resignation that he had tendered on grounds of conscience, which he held to be his highest tribunal. He was no yes-man.

An innovator by profession, he was equally innovative in Rastrapati Bhavan. He promoted e-governance and wired up his office for a start. He proposed an e-judiciary and pressed for a national litigation pendency clearance mission. He initiated regular breakfast meetings with MPs and State Ministers to review and promote development from which the aim of a Developed India by 2020 emerged. To this end he also sought to construct a national prosperity index to measure progress in terms of both growth and welfare. These were not exercises in futility. They made people think and sowed the seeds of action. He noted carefully suggestions made in various reports and by wise heads and compiled these into a list of “do’s”. On the political plane he advocated independent selection panels for appointments to all constitutional and regulatory offices — an issue of current controversy — and a constitutional amendment that would permit the prime minister to appoint up to 25 per cent of his or her cabinet from outside parliament so as to bring in expertise. He also proposed that the Planning Commission be mandated to present an annual report to Parliament on actual achievements in relation to agreed annual targets.

His first outstation visit on being sworn President was to Gujarat soon after the bloody riots of 2002. Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee did not object but inquired if such a visit was essential. Dr Kalam thought so and did go, and was able to give comfort and bring succour to many and was escorted throughout by Narendra Modi. The visit did impart a healing touch and sent out the message that the nation cared.

One of the revelations Dr Kalam makes is that in 2004, he would unhesitatingly have called upon Sonia Gandhi to form the Government, as she had the mandate, but was surprised when she instead put forward Dr Manmohan Singh’s name as prime minister.

In the field of foreign affairs the President felt that in an increasing globalised world much commerce and other transactions are governed by international treaties. Hence the importance of vesting Parliament with the power to ratify all international agreements, a process not yet part of Indian practice unlike in most places elsewhere in the world. Here was a thinking President imbued with democratic values. When he visited South Africa to address the Pan-African Parliament he projected the idea of developing a Pan-African e-Network to connect Africa with an Indian core competency. The idea has gradually borne fruit. The President of course ardently supported the civil nuclear deal with the U.S. and spent time in Tamil Nadu to reassure fishermen and coastal residents that the Kudankulam nuclear plant will do them no harm.

Addressing the European Parliament, the President broke into one of his own compositions, an Ode to the European Union , which touched the Parliamentarians. The poem might not compare with those of Keats or Shelley but it came from the heart. Turning Points makes for simple reading but makes one realise how much an upright, thinking President can do.

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