Non-fiction Reviews

Strictly for the fans

A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s fans will love this book. S.M. Khan, who was press secretary to the ‘people’s President’, chronicles how Kalam spent his days in Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Much of the Kalam lore needs no retelling, and the book does not have much more to add to it. It disappoints those curious to know how Kalam the scientist mastered the nuts and bolts of constitutional governance. It’s strictly for the fans.

And if anything revelatory emerges at all, it is in a chapter that reads much like a postscript. Worried about the stasis in Parliament, days before his passing in 2015, Kalam tells the author, “Narendra Modi is a performer; he should be allowed to perform.”

The idea of the book came from Modi, with the Prime Minister suggesting that Khan write something on the former President.

Kalam and Modi go back a long way, to the initial days of his presidency, when Gujarat was mired in a pogrom and Modi was Chief Minister. Back in 2002, Kalam gave sleepless nights to the establishment by choosing Gujarat for his first trip as President. The book describes how the media went into overdrive, with an unprecedented pull-aside meeting with the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, leading to the spinning of many a yarn.

The ‘Missile Man’ went to the wounded State as an apostle of peace, preaching the virtues of religious harmony, and returned without controversy.

A must-read chapter is on the legal and constitutional issues faced by Kalam during his term. He was no Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to affix his signature on anything that the government put on the table. Kalam showed pluck in declining to pass an ordinance intended to bypass a Supreme Court order that called for electoral candidates to declare their criminal antecedents, assets and liabilities. As expected, the government sent back the ordinance, and Kalam had no choice. It was a litmus test for the new President, the book says.

More painful for him was the signing of the dubious dissolution of the Bihar Assembly, which had been in suspended animation for a while, during the rule of the United Progressive Alliance I. The book recounts how the file came to Kalam past midnight during his visit to Moscow. The author does not have anything more to add than what is publicly known about the drama surrounding the selection of Manmohan Singh to lead the Congress-led government that took charge in 2004. He insists that Kalam never had anything against Congress president Sonia Gandhi becoming Prime Minister because of her foreign origin.

The book never ups its pace even when narrating defining moments in history. What it does best is chronicle Kalam’s numerous visits across the country and abroad.

Kalam was not media-shy, and he interacted freely with members of the press. He wanted to partner with the media for his mission to make India a developed nation. His breakfast meetings with Members of Parliament, the children’s gallery he opened, and his inexorable tours of the nation, all had one significant goal: Vision 2020.

The former President never sold his soul to the insular politics of Delhi. As the book shows, no Indian political leader (if he can be called one) kept up such a constant engagement with north-eastern India as Kalam did. It seems fitting that he bid adieu to the world in Shillong, while engaged in his foremost passion — igniting young minds.

Kalam’s brother A.P.J.M. Maraikayar has written the foreword to the book.

The People’s President: A.P.J. Abdul Kalam; S.M. Khan, Bloomsbury, Rs. 299.

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Printable version | Aug 2, 2021 2:17:10 PM |

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