What made Kalam so beloved to ordinary people?

Auto Drivers pay a tribute to former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Photo: G. SRIBHARATH

Auto Drivers pay a tribute to former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Photo: G. SRIBHARATH

My daughter’s classmate broke into tears when she heard of Abdul Kalam’s death. In 2015, that’s an unusual reaction from a 21-year-old to a leader’s death. Driving to work today, I saw the back of an auto, usually the abode of a Rajinikanth, displaying a Kalam poster. And yesterday, people on a Besant Nagar pavement were festooning a Kalam banner with garlands and waving handfuls of incense sticks. I wonder what made Kalam such a people’s President?

There is a palpable difference in the way in which Indians are mourning Kalam. This is not the mindless hysteria of fandom or hagiography that follows filmstars or filmstar-politicians; it is something deeper and vastly more sincere. It is, in fact, affection — of the kind that we reserve for family and friends. And it has united Indians with the same degree of intensity with which Yakub Memon’s hanging divided them. In many ways, that difference in reaction explains the Kalam phenomenon.

Kalam represented hope. Hope in a kind of India that we want to desperately believe is still possible. Almost 70 years ago, we launched a brand new country — bumbling and clumsy but sparkling with optimism that a new future was around the corner. We thought we were a special people, Gandhi’s people, who would automatically be honest, hard-working, peaceful, spiritual and brilliant. We believed our schools would eradicate illiteracy and reservations destroy casteism, that our farms and factories would remove poverty, our IITians give us fabulous cities and our IAS officers brilliant governance. Almost each of those dreams has been rudely broken. We have discovered to our chagrin and disbelief that we are astonishingly corrupt and capable of appalling violence in the name of caste and religion, our children remain unschooled and desperate poverty still dogs us. Forget fabulous cities, our governments can’t provide us with even ordinary roads or uninterrupted water and electricity.

And then Kalam arrived. He was the son of a boat-owner from the sleepy town of Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu. He belonged to a minority religious group. He distributed newspapers as a young boy to help his father. He went on to become a renowned space and nuclear scientist, leading the country’s most prestigious missile programmes. He also helped develop low-cost stents and tablet computers. And then, of course, he became President. His was the kind of life we want to believe is possible for all Indians, that regardless of poverty or religion or caste, they can succeed if only they work hard enough. It was impossible to identify Kalam with a religion, an ideology or even a region. He was just an Indian who believed in the idea of India.

As President and later too, Kalam did something else — he stayed in touch. He was not an ivory-tower intellectual writing arcane theory. Here was a man who shook hands with children and talked to teenagers. His books and talks were accessible and of the soil. He taught extensively, he wrote poetry, he interacted ceaselessly with people from all walks of life, especially students, who he was convinced would build the nation of his dreams. And he continued to believe that this nation was just around the corner. Tales of his integrity and modest lifestyle have gone viral now, and they are a giveaway of what Indians love to idealise but seem incapable of emulating. But they also reveal something else. Under that nasty cynicism with which we accept corrupt politicians and dishonest businessmen, there is perhaps still an idealistic streak that might yet be the making of us. It is this core that Kalam touched.

Vaishna is Associate Editor with The Hindu and can be contacted at

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Printable version | May 16, 2022 6:37:47 pm |