A new President

Print edition : July 20, 2002

Although the numbers were on A.P.J. Abdul Kalam's side, the presence of Lakshmi Sahgal in the presidential race served to bring crucial issues centrestage.

"As a young citizen of India, armed with technology, knowledge and love for my nation, I realise, small aim is a crime."

THUS wrote A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in his Song of Youth on March 23, 2002, much before he was declared the presidential nominee of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). He always dared to aim high. The man, still overwhelmed by the realisation that somebody with humble origins like him can occupy the country's highest office, is ecstatic at the wonderful vagaries of Indian polity. "It feels fantastic," was all he would say gleefully to waiting mediapersons, as the voting for the President's post progressed at Parliament House on July 15.

A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.-AJIT KUMAR/AP

Since Kalam has the support of the ruling coalition and most of the Opposition, the result was a foregone conclusion. The sense of achievement was writ large on his face as he mingled freely with the Members of Parliament who had come to vote. He was equally at ease with the mediapersons, chatting with them but, characteristically, not saying much.

Of the 774 MPs, 26, six from the Rajya Sabha and 20 from the Lok Sabha, had sought permission to cast their votes in different State Assemblies. Prominent among them was Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam general secretary Vaiko, who has been arrested in Chennai under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Three Rajya Sabha and 10 Lok Sabha members could not vote, for various reasons. Among them were Dr. L.M. Singhvi and Rajiv Shukla (Rajya Sabha) and Renuka Chaudhary and Rajiv Ranjan 'Pappu' Yadav (Lok Sabha).

Captain Lakshmi, or Lakshmi Sahgal, the Left parties' nominee, who arrived from Kanpur just as the voting began, was a study in contrast. "It does not feel anything great. I still remember the day when Netaji had called us for the first meeting in 1943. It had appeared as if a whole new world had opened for us. It does not feel anything like that," the veteran freedom fighter told mediapersons. "Even before the contest began, we knew what the outcome was going to be. We were not expecting any miracles. But what is important is the fact that we have managed to raise the voice of the common man," she said.

Although the numbers were not on her side, Lakshmi Sahgal's presence did imbue the election with a new vigour; she forced her opponent to spell out his priorities and let the nation know where he stood on issues such as the review of the Constitution, secularism, Centre-State relations, Jammu and Kashmir and social justice. The nation knew him only as a nuclear scientist and the father of India's successful missile programme. But for the presidential race no one would have probably known what he thought of these issues. With a fighter like Lakshmi Sahgal in the fray, he could no longer afford to be anything but succinct.

The campaign too presented a study in contrast. While Lakshmi Sahgal took pains to meet personally members of the intelligentsia and political leaders across the country, seeking their support, Kalam preferred to do it through the Internet. He sent letters to all the members of the electoral college and posted a copy of the letter on the Net, which could be accessed on his homepage (http:\\www.apjabdulkalam.vsnl.com). He had personal interaction mainly with schoolchildren with a view to "igniting the mind to achieve the vision - Developed India".

Lakshmi Sahgal.-KAMAL NARANG

Lakshmi Sahgal, talking the language of politics, emphasised the fight against communalism and the politics of hatred. She was unsparing in her attack on the Congress(I) and its "politics of opportunism". In his election manifesto - if the six-page letter can be described as one - Kalam tried to put to rest some of the apprehensions that might have arisen because of the NDA's support for him. For instance, the issue of Constitution review. The Centre has in its possession an extensive report of the Committee to Review the Working of the Constitution, and there have been misgivings in the minds of many that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led NDA government might tamper with the basic structure of the Constitution, notwithstanding public pronouncements to the contrary. Kalam's categorical views on this issue provided some reassurance. He said: "Parliamentary democracy is the core of our governance system, with the President as the Head of State and overall custodian of the Constitution... The basic structure of our Constitution has stood the test of time and shown itself to be having the vigour, vitality and eternal freshness that make it capable of meeting any challenge that new circumstances might hurl at it. At the same time, our Constitution is also innately resilient so as to be responsive to the demands of changing situations... We all need to zealously preserve this principle of change with continuity."

At his press conference, Kalam was less than clear on the issue of secularism. The views he expressed in his letter to the Members of Parliament came like a breath of fresh air, although he placed secularism low on his list of priorities, perhaps in deference to the sentiments of his main supporter, the BJP. It was the eighth item, immediately after Kashmir. Nevertheless, his views are important. He says: "Intolerance and violence in the name of religion is the worst form of irreligion. True religion is that Ocean of Spiritualism into which all faiths shine in brilliance. To people in politics and governance it teaches the message of leadership with compassion and fairness."

Kalam's views on Centre-State relations are likely to cheer those who argue for more powers to the States. He says he is for a strong Centre and strong States. "The time has come to devolve more powers to the States since decentralisation is the key to faster and more balanced development," he said.

On issues such as social and economic justice, women's empowerment, preserving the pluralistic diversity of India's heritage, natural resources and environment, arts, sports, literature, foreign policy, and Kashmir, Kalam voices politically correct and predictable views. But a notable feature is that he has tried to devote time to issues other than national security, which was his principal preoccupation until recently.

On national security, he says: "National security has to be recognised by every Indian as a national priority. Making India strong and self-reliant - economically, socially and militarily - is our foremost duty towards our Motherland." India, he says, suffered invasions in the past because it was not armed sufficiently. Now it should be in a position to defend itself. He, however, states that "our national security strategy is guided purely by defensive considerations. It poses no threat to any country in the world."

His manifesto ends with a call to transform India into a developed nation by the year 2020. "A developed India by 2020, or even earlier, is not a dream. It need not be a mere vision in the minds of many Indians. It is a mission we can all take up and succeed in," he says. His optimism stems from his faith in the youth whom he describes as the greatest assets of the country. They should be nurtured with all possible care so that they can develop as responsible and capable citizens of tomorrow, he says. "The ignited soul, compared to any resource, is the most powerful resource on the earth, above the earth and under the earth," Kalam wrote in his Song of Youth. Time only will tell whether he will succeed in igniting the souls to achieve his dream.

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