Sunday, August 02, 2015

Stop this legending!

The role of India’s president is to be, among other things, a walking mission statement.
-      The Economist, “Rocketman”, Jun 13th, 2002.

This was the opening line in the article, and as you can feel, it is loaded with sarcasm.
I had read this – reference to Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, who was then soon to be anointed President of India – more than thirteen years ago and it has stayed with me. I recall I did not take too kindly to the tone of the start, particularly if one left out “among other things”. I said, to myself, “Still, our president is better than your king/queen and your never-to-be king prince too! Take that, you snooty Brits!”
But now, I am beginning to see things in a different light. In the intervening time, we were exposed to the spectacle of how Britons ostentatiously grieved over Princess Diana. I thought that a society perhaps needs to engage in social, en masse grieving. Now, is there a lesson in that for us who now appear to be inconsolably sad over the demise of Dr. A P J Abdul Kalam?
I think there is. Just as much as a society needs to engage in public display of grief, it also needs legends, to be created periodically. Diana was made a legend – a short-lived legend (an oxymoron, I admit) – and now, Indians, unabashed admirers of the Brits have found the appropriate personality to fill that niche.
For Diana, it was her supposed role in landmines. For Kalam, who was definitely not one-dimensional, it is his achievements in Indian space-faring (oriented clearly towards defence) and also his professed love for education of children. It is to be noted that though his accomplishments got him due rewards like the highest civilian honor of the country, he does not seem to have left any lasting impression of the institution of President of India. That is, the appreciation he has got is fully “unofficial”. And, this is how legends are started, nothing official! How enduring this legending will be, I do not know.
OK, we all know what Kalam has done over his illustrious career and life. Indeed, we have been carpet-bombed on this over the past week. But, in this neglected corner of the information world that is my blog space, let me point out a few things that Kalam did do that does not feel very enlightened and things he wanted to do but couldn’t, for which we may be grateful.
It was perhaps a few weeks before he was to demit the post of President of India. There was some clamor about giving him an extended life, a second term in Rashtrapati Bhawan. Kalam was sitting on the fence, keeping his constituency on the edge too. But, finally he chose to jump on what I would consider the wrong side. He came out slightly hungry, hungrier than thou. He said that he will throw in his hat in the ring of presidential election if it can be guaranteed that he would be elected. This was a grave misstep. He showed that he did not understand the politics of Indian democracy, of which he was the First Citizen.
This is not the time to point out his human foibles, it can be argued. But, if not now, when can we? After the legend has truly taken root? That is like catching the tiger by its tail.
It was immediately after Pokhran II nuclear tests when he said that, “strength respects strength”, in the context of how after the test India stood taller than ever in the comity of nations. I had to gag myself with a fork, even if not immediately. It had to wait till he became the president.
Kalam, of course, true to the duties imposed on him by the office he held, had to say, and must have said a few words about M K Gandhi and his philosophy on his birthday, almost exclusively in approval. But, never did Kalam mention that his “strength respects strength”, in the context he said, stands Gandhi’s take on its head.
Gandhi talked about standing against the strength of immorality through the strength that inheres in morality, as he conceived. Stand up to violence not by being violent in response but by being its antipode. No, I am not endorsing MKG’s views on this, but Kalam, after having made his position clear on how to counter strength, had no business not pointing out this divergence between himself and MKG.
Obviously, this must be true of just about everyone who has extolled the deeds of M K Gandhi, but not everyone is India’s “Missile Man”, a Bharat Ratna, a “People’s President”, and not everyone will be lionized and legended upon his or her death.
Kalam advocated the concept of PURA (Providing Urban Amenities in Rural Areas). This went nowhere, though it was ostensibly supported in XI Five Year Plan. Don’t fill up just the credit side of the ledger; look across the spine too. When he stopped being the president, he could have resurrected his idea and tried fighting for it outside of the power circle. He did not. He let his mission statement stand fully discredited. He did not persevere. This must have surprised those in his corner then.
More on the debit side. He was strongly behind the woolly concept of inter-linking of rivers across the sub-continental dimensions of India. OK, there was a rupee estimate, an eye-popping Rs. 5.6 trillion rupees. He set a target of a few years.
That was his one mission statement that should have been rubbished the moment it was uttered. The country had no recourse to resources of that magnitude, had no institutional capacity to absorb that amount, and indeed, was lacking severely in its technological prowess and manpower needs. Did Kalam even think about these factors before making that mission statement? To be charitable, I would say it skipped his mind. But, there is more – he did not give even a sideways glance at sociological and environmental issues.
OK, climate change has been a raging issue even in his times at the Rashtrapati Bhawan. In all the encomia that have appeared since his death, I fail to find any reference to his concern for the overriding issue of the day, in the context of sustainable development. He was addressing students every other day but was almost silent on this issue in that forum. Is this a case of “the dog did not bark”? I hope not.
A few years ago, when I was a denizen of Delhi, I did carry out the ritual – visit Mughal Gardens in Rashtrapati Bhawan. This was during the time of Kalam being the resident there. And, under his initiative, a small corner of the expanse was tagged “Bio-Diversity Park” and we filed dutifully along the edges of small plots of various herbs and spices. That was it. If this is the idea of bio-diversity that Kalam wanted to promote among people, the movement towards not curtailing bio-diversity needs no enemies.
Please try to understand what I am saying. A P J Abdul Kalam is worthy of our admiration and respect for the things he accomplished in his life. He showed us the value of persistence. He may have inherited certain institutions but did contribute immensely in sustaining and indeed developing them to suit the times. In all of these, he was distinctly different from Princess Diana. So, perhaps the implicit parallel that was drawn at the beginning may not have been warranted.
But, within the constraints of the office he held, President of India, his performance was nothing to write home about. Upon retiring as the president, he did what others do. He went on the lecture circuit, but with a difference. He may have addressed industry and finance bigwigs now and made more money; but was sharply focused on school children. His audience lapped up what he said. But will anything lasting come out? We will wait and see. This is good, but nothing extraordinary.
As far as I remember, his days in Rashtrapati Bhawan were crisis-free. True, that was not his fault. But then, one has to play the cards that have been dealt. His stint at the Rashtrapati Bhawan is not anything that would be highlighted in his CV.
He, as I have pointed out, was good at penning mission statements, but it does appear that not much thought had gone behind these. True, many great ideas had their genesis on cocktail napkins or even matchbox. But, even with the institutional support he had, Kalam’s mission statements were more prone to misfiring. This from the “Missile Man” is something hard to digest.
Given all of the above, the unarguable assessment must be that Kalam was a productive Indian, had risen to positions of leadership on the dint of his own efforts, and gained the affection and respect of his fellow citizens that is, if not unmatched, something worthy of emulation.
But, would that qualify him to be legended? I suspect not. Britons, upon the death of Lady Di legended her. Something similar appears to be happening with Kalam. In this perspective, the implied comparison is valid.
Just think. If Kalam is allowed to remain a legend, he would be correctly recognized as a later day Princess Diana. Is that what we want for A P J Abdul Kalam?
Stop making Kalam a legend, thereby making us remembering him more truly as an extraordinary human being, with foibles and all. Remember him as someone more than his set of mission statements.
Stop legending.
Raghuram Ekambaram


Aditi said...

This was very refreshing, Raghu. We indeed have this compulsive need of making a legend of human beings we generally like and admire for certain qualities. I feel in this case, the way he died had made him a legend material as well ... in an academic institution in the North-East, while delivering a lecture...

mandakolathur said...

Yes, Aditi, that is a very valid point - the circumstances of his death offered a ready anchor for his legending. But, it also means that his other achievements, real or imagined, are merely additional ballast to the anchor, inspiring the young. So, he got lucky and so also we, to have such an easy legend dropped in our lap.