P.M. Nair on the best boss of them all – former President A P J Abdul Kalam

In India, issues of corruption and abuse of power get far more media space than the occasional happy victory of a David over Goliath. In this cynicism-inducing scenario, it comes as a surprise to hear a senior officer of the Indian Administrative Service declare, “I’ve had no grievances at all in my 40 years of service.”

“It is not at all difficult to be an honest person in this country,” insists P.M. Nair, a 1967 batch IAS officer, “If you have a certain faith in yourself and in God”.

Eternal optimist

Such indefatigable optimism can pale only next to the insuperable optimism of one person: former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. No wonder Nair, who criss-crossed the country on a range of assignments, culminating with Rashtrapati Bhavan, was chosen by Kalam for the post of his Secretary.

And, in choosing Nair, the Missile Man of India seems to have been bang on target. A modest Nair protests, “I cannot judge myself.”

Now readers can judge for themselves, as Nair’s memories of those five whirlwind years, where the nights were short and days eventful, where morning meetings were held in the afternoons and dinnertime was well past midnight, have just hit the bookstands. The Kalam Effect — My Years with the President, published by Harper Collins, was written in 12 days flat, says the author.

A thoroughbred Civil Servant to whom this job was initially like any other — the book starts with his vacillation on whether to accept the assignment or stay on in the Ministry of Defence, a posting he was enjoying — Nair admits that he did not keep a diary as he never intended to write a book.

Icing on the cake

But while the experience was unique enough for the memories to be vivid, he reiterates that Kalam was not the only boss who gave him freedom and comfort to work. “I was always lucky to have bosses who were very good. Nobody muffled me. Then, I got Kalam. This was the icing on the cake.” If Kalam proved everyone, who thought he would be a rubber stamp President, wrong, Nair too was no yes-man. He is proud to say, “The President could take ‘no’ from me,” but notes that others, such as former Arunachal Chief Minister Mukut Mithi, also did. To have a CM listen to his arguments and note down his comments in the file, says Nair, is “the greatest thing a civil servant can ask for”.

Nair’s descriptions of the work schedule, the meticulous attention to every petition received by the President’s office, and the personal interest Kalam took in a staggering range of activities, would tend to raise the former President beyond the ken of mere mortals.

But, notes the author, the President had his flaws. Even surrounded by the trappings of protocol, he managed to be unpunctual most of the time. The delays were surely because of an impossibly packed schedule, but delay he did, despite valiant attempts not to. His Herculean timetable too, seems to be because the man is compassionate and generous to a fault.

What makes Kalam human

Even his patience, one discerns from reading the book, seems to have tried the patience of his staff. However minor, these drawbacks have been candidly expressed. “If he didn’t have these flaws, he would not have been human.”

The “People’s President”, as we still love to call him, revealed his mission regarding India to Nair during their very first meeting in office.

How far did he feel satisfied with it’s progress when he left Rashtrapati Bhavan? “He had an agenda for the nation to be a developed country by 2020 or earlier,” says Nair. “I don’t know whether he was satisfied, because it was not supposed to be by 2007. But, I am sure that even now, he is working towards it. He always used to say that one doesn’t have to be the President to work for the country. He tells the youth all the time to work for the country, to do now what can be done tomorrow.”

Kalam is convinced, says Nair, that “truth and youth energy can be utilised” to achieve India’s development goals. He may no longer be India’s President, but the Kalam effect continues.