From scientist to politician

Published : Jul 06, 2002 00:00 IST

HE has been described as a "politician among scientists and a scientist among politicians" for a good reason. Contrary to the general belief that he would be an Alice in political wonderland, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who is set to be the country's next President, betrays political shades of an even deeper hue than a hard-boiled politician. During a preliminary interaction with media persons, before and after filing his nomination papers, Kalam came forth as a politician. Politicians who might have sponsored his candidature thinking that he would be pliable enough because of his non-political background had better be warned.

It was at Kalam's first press conference on June 19, after he filed his nomination papers, that the politician in him came to the fore. The media were agog and many newspersons were eager to speak to the first-ever scientist-technologist who would be President; it was not unlikely, it appeared, that he would make some unguarded remarks, considering his relative naivety in political terms. But Kalam disappointed them all. He fielded questions with the deftness of a politician, and like a seasoned politician he stuck to a few politically correct, well-rehearsed lines, even in the face of persistent, uncomfortable questioning on Gujarat, India-Pakistan ties, Ayodhya and even his own initial reluctance to accept the candidature. He ducked questions he did not want to reply to by promptly moving on to the next questioner. He ultimately succeeded in managing the media to his advantage, and by the time he finished it seemed he had them eating out of his hand.

It was clear from the beginning that it would be Kalam who would run the show, and not Pramod Mahajan, who tried prompting him. He soon forced the media to fall in line: he insisted that he would first jot down the questions and then reply to them one by one, and he stuck to this mode for the first few minutes despite much protest. Questions on Gujarat had him reeling out homilies on the elevation of religion to spiritualism and the development of leadership with compassion. In his world view, problems of communalism can be solved if there is total literacy, education and health for all, agricultural development and food processing. He also insisted that problems such as Ayodhya can be solved with the same formula. No amount of prodding would make him comment on the acts of commission or omission by Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi or the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government.

On the Gujarat pogrom all he would say was that "what happened was painful and we should prevent it at all costs". On sensitive topics such as the imposition of President's Rule, he did not hazard an opinion. He merely said that the President should consult constitutional experts, who are available in abundance, on such matters before arriving at any decision. The same reply was made in the context of finding a solution to Ayodhya. In reply to a question on what made him change his mind and accept the offer of presidentship when he had expressed himself to be totally against the idea only eight weeks earlier, he feigned a memory lapse about any such reluctance, and said that becoming the President was only another way for him to serve the nation. Kalam the scientist would have explained the changeover, but not Kalam the politician. He took care not to utter a single sentence that would embarrass his sponsors. The moment he sensed a question veering towards an uncomfortable zone, he would change the topic, like a deft politician, and start talking about his vision and mission, - "national development" - and his dream of taking the nation to higher technological heights. Tricky questions such as whether he agreed with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's (RSS) description of him as a "modern nationalist Muslim" got drowned in cliches such as: one should be a good human being first, an Indian next and the rest follows.

The same political skill was visible when he went calling on the Prime Minister, the leader of the Opposition and others. He thanked them for reposing their confidence in him and promised each of them what he thought would please them. He promised Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav that he would learn Hindi soon. To Vajpayee he said he was taking his lessons on the Constitution and that the pace of learning would increase after his election. He expressed his gratitude to Sonia Gandhi for her support. For the media, he only had smiles. He chose not to answer questions; he merely said that he felt very humble with all the support and that any questions would be answered at the right time and in the right forum. The right forum happened to be the press conference, but only after he had a session with Pramod Mahajan and Defence Minister George Fernandes. Their briefing was obviously of great help. The sense of relief in the National Democratic Alliance after the press conference, in which Kalam managed not to say anything even after one and a half hours of questioning, was obvious. Mahajan's worried visage relaxing into a creased smile as the press conference progressed said it all. The missile had after all had been launched successfully, and it was on course.

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