On the one side, a sharp intellect, personal integrity, extraordinary commitment to his technological mission, and a gift for team work. On the other side, an apolitical vision of science as a value-free enterprise characteristic of those engaged in developing weapons of mass destruction, a mixed track record as a techno-manager, a penchant for oversimplification and aphorisms, and a lack of political experience. Will the next President, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, be up to the job?
CONSENSUS is a prized word in the Indian political lexicon, and there is no occasion when the virtues of the concept are extolled with greater zeal than the election of the head of state. It has been an unwritten convention that the President of the Republic should enjoy the confidence of parties across the political spectrum, since he is the principal trustee of the Constitution which embodies the consensus on which the nation stands.
The choice of A.P.J. Abdul Kalam as candidate for President by the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was a rare flash of political inspiration. It had the effect of blunting the growing momentum within the Opposition to take the matter to a contest. Given the mixed character of the electoral college and the varieties of resentment that seethe just beneath the superficial appearance of unity in the NDA, a contest could have gone right down to the wire. Kalam's nomination had the dramatic effect of dissolving the growing unity of purpose within the Opposition over the presidential election. Smaller political groupings, some of which had proposed Kalam's name as a possibility in the days when speculation held the field, were quick to endorse the NDA's choice. And Kalam's elevation to Rashtrapati Bhavan was virtually assured when the Congress(I), torn between the perceptions of the central and regional leaderships, belatedly endorsed his candidacy.
Kalam's social background and his record of achievement endow his choice with a rich symbolism. Born in a humble and disadvantaged social milieu, Kalam is a fully home-grown product of Indian scientific institutions. With a reputation for being a relentless motivator, he rose to the helm of the research and development institutions built by the post-Independence generation of scientists and synthesised diverse strands of endeavour into an array of technological capabilities.
Kalam is today known in particular for the missile programme, which was built on the modules of technical expertise forged in the space programme under the inspirational leadership of Satish Dhawan. He is also remembered for his pivotal role in the Pokhran nuclear explosive tests, though his connection with the preceding scientific effort was perhaps oblique. And as with any record of achievement set off against a gray background of indifferent performances, Kalam's less successful ventures as head of defence research - the light combat aircraft and the main battle tank, to name two prominent instances - have not quite coloured the public appreciation of his contributions.
In 1989, as he basked in the glow of public adulation after the first successful flight test of Agni, India's intermediate range ballistic missile, Kalam coined the aphorism that he is to this day associated with. Agni, he said, could be used to deliver a fragrant payload of flowers to distant lands, just as it could unleash the destructive power of a nuclear explosion on enemy territory.
The vision of science as a value-free enterprise that is not encumbered by political ideologies is a particularly congenial one for individuals engaged in developing weapons of mass destruction. But critics of this notion of science as an isolated venture free of an imprint of the wider milieu have often argued that the scientist is obliged to be attentive to his social environment and reckon with the political intents and motivations of those whose interests he serves.
Kalam may not quite measure up to this standard of assessment, but there is little denying his surpassing sense of commitment to his mission, his spartan simplicity, engaging candour and honesty of purpose. These are powerful attributes for a future incumbent of Rashtrapati Bhavan. Even if he is unaware of the niceties of public affairs and purported till recently to be interested in little else than the popularisation of science, few doubt that he could potentially be a worthy successor to K.R. Narayanan.
Yet the plain fact is that Kalam's elevation to Rashtrapati Bhavan would be not so much a consequence of political consensus as of the fact that he was virtually unopposable. With the exception of the Left, most parties have been taken in by the symbolism of the choice and have failed to ask the hard questions. It is sufficient for them that Kalam has contributed in a conspicuous manner to the national defence effort and belongs to a minority community that has not been represented in Rashtrapati Bhavan since 1977 and has reason to worry about its status in the Indian Republican scheme. The Left parties, which have made familiarity with public affairs and the Constitution a touchstone for eligibility, have chosen to field Lakshmi Sahgal, a widely respected veteran of Subhas Chandra Bose's heroic armed struggle in the cause of Indian independence, as a counterpoint to Kalam's apolitical candidature.
The solitary resistance by the Left does not quite mean that reservations about Kalam's suitability have been laid at rest in other quarters. At best, it only signifies that these have been momentarily suppressed in the belief that the assets he brings to the job - a sharp intellect and uncompromising integrity - will serve him well in warding off the partisan manoeuvres of those who are sponsoring him.
For a while it seemed that the choice of President this year would for the first time since 1969 become the arena for a bruising political battle. The government in authority at the Centre had perpetrated a sufficient number of transgressions against the Constitution to warrant the concerted ire of the Opposition. The incumbent President, K.R. Narayanan, had within his constitutional limitations counselled against reckless attempts in word and deed to abridge the working of the Constitution. And the Opposition, with a few exceptions that were motivated more by partisan ire than an understanding of propriety, had made a powerful attempt to field Narayanan for a second term in office. Narayanan was of course averse to being a domino in a political battle, one that could potentially have pitted him against an elected government and in the event of victory created an unviable polarisation between the head of state and government.
Some of the pressure on the NDA abated when the Opposition failed to agree on a second term for Narayanan. But coalition managers, and in particular Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee who was delegated the authority to choose on behalf of the NDA, were still under compulsion to come up with a choice that would be acceptable across a broad spectrum. In other words, the Bharatiya Janata Party had to work under the premise that there would be little tolerance for the kind of partisanship that had planted lapsed activists of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in gubernatorial mansions across the country.
The name of P.C. Alexander, the current Governor of Maharashtra, had been floated by the NDA early in May, to little visible enthusiasm from other political parties. The Congress(I) found Alexander unacceptable for a variety of reasons. He had been Principal Secretary to two successive Congress Prime Ministers - Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. But he had since shown a ready adaptability to other kinds of political dispensations, which in a party that sets great store by loyalty to the dynasty was not a striking claim to high office.
In a more basic sense, the Congress(I) reacted with extreme indifference to Alexander's prospective candidature because of the disingenuous political calculations that underlay it. On the part of the BJP, the elevation of a Christian to the highest constitutional office in the land was a transparent attempt to block the route to the prime ministerial office for Congress president Sonia Gandhi. It would have laid the groundwork for stoking the variety of sectarian paranoia that is the political lifeblood of the RSS constellation. With the second wind that Alexander's candidature was given by the NDA, campaign managers of the BJP were already scripting a whisper campaign about the nation's highest offices being taken over by Christians and about the contrast between native-born Christians and foreigners imposed on the country because of the Congress' weakness for dynastic legitimacy.
Aware of the initial resistance, Prime Minister Vajpayee was prepared to withdraw Alexander's name discreetly and put forward the elevation of Vice-President Krishan Kant as the path of least resistance. A low-key politician of the old school, Krishan Kant did not enjoy the strong endorsement of any political party, except possibly the Telugu Desam which remembers his prior tenure as Andhra Pradesh Governor with some fondness. But with the discussions acquiring a contentious edge, Krishan Kant's stodginess presented itself as a unique qualification.
But this hesitant move towards a compromise was scuppered by hardline elements within the BJP, who were insistent on taking on the Opposition and winning an unequivocal victory. Alexander's name was put forward again, with an arrogant take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum to the Opposition. Just as much as it was an affront to the spirit of consensus, this was a serious blow to the authority of the Prime Minister, which had been strenuously exerted in the cause of compromise.
AS the Opposition began gathering its forces for battle, came the final act in the drama. Though spoken of as a serious possibility by BJP elements from as early as April, Kalam had not been discussed within the NDA or between the government and the Opposition until the time that a confrontation seemed inevitable. But once the name issued forth from the inner councils of the NDA, whatever resolve there may have been on forcing the issue to a contest was quickly dissolved. In its eagerness to endorse Kalam, the Samajwadi Party overlooked the minor point that it was allied with the Left in a putative third front. Still sceptical about the NDA's motives in sponsoring Kalam, the Left dissolved the People's Front and chose to put up its own candidate. And despite successively postponing the moment of decision, the Congress suffered a loss of nerve and opted to go along with the Kalam candidacy.
In pushing Kalam's candidature, the BJP, which has provided a secure roost for the egregious minority-baiting Chief Minister of Gujarat, hopes to benefit in multiple ways. Though the tokenism of rotating the Presidency between communities is now viewed with a large measure of public scepticism, the elevation of a Muslim - even one so heterodox as Kalam - at this stage could serve to shore up the badly battered faith of a religious minority in India's republican values. It would also enable the BJP to lay exclusive claim to the technological accomplishments that Kalam has been responsible for and perhaps bolster its image as a party that does not compromise on national security. Tokenism is not expected to count for much when the country comes up frontally against the livelihood concerns that have been aroused by the BJP's record of ineptitude in office. And the gains in terms of community relations cannot be more than ephemeral. As the late Dr. Zakir Hussain, President between 1967 and 1969, was known to remark, it is easier to elect a Muslim to Rashtrapati Bhavan than to appoint one a clerk in the Central government.