THE process of choosing the next President of India has seen more than the usual quota of uncertainty, confusion, volatility, backroom manoeuvre and bickering, back-stabbing, opportunism and, finally, a dramatic end-game. The drama has dissolved into hyped-up euphoria of a kind that clearly works against an informed and intelligent debate over the merits of the candidates and the issues, thus devaluing both the process and the choice. Given the nature of ideological-political sponsorship of the leading candidate, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam - the inventor, missile developer, technology coordinator, 'the-nation-is-greater-than-the-individual', value-laden aphorist and homily-maker, and gung-ho apolitical votary of weapons of mass destruction - the agenda behind this sponsorship, and the curious falling in line of the principal Opposition party, the Congress(I), the contest for the position of head of state has been rendered purely symbolic.
For the Congress(I), accepting the candidate of the National Democratic Alliance, the Hindu Right-led combination whose policies and programme it claims to oppose at the core, is an act lacking in independence and fighting spirit and bordering on political denseness. It is good that the Left has fielded - if only symbolically, in order to make an independent stand and explain issues - 87-year-old Dr. Lakshmi Sahgal, the illustrious 'Captain Lakshmi' of the militant stream of the freedom struggle, comrade of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, political leader, champion of secularism, campaigner for women's rights, and dedicated doctor who has served the deprived and the disadvantaged life-long. The lop-sided contest, which suggests what might have been had the Opposition united effectively over the choice of the next President, offers the prospect of a worthwhile debate on the agenda and issues involved in this presidential election.
Abdul Kalam's personal integrity, work ethic, unassuming bachelor ways and accessibility, combining with his accomplishments as an inventor, leader of the SLV-3 and Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) programmes, and inspirational techno-manager, have won him national renown and high honours. His single-minded focus on getting things in the face of obstacles and resource constraints, and his unrelenting commitment to the path self-reliance in sensitive technological fields in an unequal and discriminatory world of technology denial and restraints, have made him something of a national icon. His sustained recent interaction with students and youth has broadened the constituency of his appeal.
Kalam's weaknesses and failures as a techno-manager, notably during his helmsmanship of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) but also (as Frontline's Science Correspondent, Dr. R. Ramachandran, points out in his article for the Cover Story) in specific aspects of missile development, have not detracted much from his status as public celebrity. Kalam's conspicuous association with the 1998 Pokhran nuclear explosions and the public confidence he exuded over national security matters and 'deterrence' in the context of nuclear weaponisation in South Asia endeared him to the Hindu Right as well as to some other political sections advocating a militantly 'nationalistic', indeed chauvinist, approach to national security and relations with problematical neighbours. Two factors render the choice of Kalam as the next Head of State unsuitable.
The first and most important is the ideological-political agenda behind the choice, which has galvanised the coalition dominated by the Hindu Right into what passes for 'unity of purpose', and has split and largely disarmed the Opposition. The political mood within the coalition ruling at the Centre is one of triumphalism, which is enhanced by the feeling that some collateral purposes may well have been served by this inspired choice. It is as though the Hindu Right believes that the choice of a vegetarian Muslim who swears by the Bhagavad Gita, is a buddy of the Sankaracharya of Kanchi, and maintains a public silence on Gujarat erases the record of a genocidal pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat.
The second factor working against the choice is the future President's world view and advocacy of nuclear weaponisation, deterrence and hawkish concepts of national security, which are ably analysed by Dr. T. Jayaraman in an article for the Cover Story: Among other things, Kalam has been claiming - against all the evidence - that nuclear weaponisation, as demonstrated to the world at Pokhran, had conferred on India the "capability to vacate nuclear threats", that the "process of nuclear weaponisation is complete", and that "India, with a billion people, had all 'weapons' to face any situation."
Nobody who knows anything about security and military issues seriously believes that India's programme of nuclear weaponisation, including the missiles developed under the techno-managerial leadership of Kalam, has secured the country against all nuclear threats. Even in relation to Pakistan, the doctrine of deterrence, has proved to be dangerously hollow. Nuclear weaponisation, it is clear from recent experience, has weakened India's national security, including its conventional force advantage over Pakistan.
Nevertheless, since the outcome of the presidential election is foregone, even those who believe the choice is unsuitable need to look forward in constructive spirit towards a Kalam presidency. The President, in the Indian constitutional scheme and in well-established practice, wields extremely limited powers, being closer in fact to a figurehead, if not an ornamental head of state, than to anything resembling an executive president.
However, as A.G. Noorani points out in his insightful article on the experience of the Indian presidency over half a century, the Constitution vests in the President a few discretionary powers the exercise of which can decisively affect the course of politics over the long term. The two main prerogatives that matter are the appointment of the Prime Minister and the dissolution of Parliament, especially in situations that are tight. This apart, the responsibility of the President is to be an upholder of constitutional fair play, secularism and democracy in every situation that arises, even if the head of state's powers to correct the situation are highly circumscribed. In this respect, Kalam cannot do better than to learn from, and emulate, the splendid way in which President K.R. Narayanan has performed his constitutional role and responsibilities without fear or favour and also his progressive role as a public educator. In the interest of India and its people, the missile man must distance himself from those who sponsored him for their ideological and political purposes, and free himself from the burden of gratitude.