A President and a promise

Published : Aug 03, 2002 00:00 IST

A.P.J. Abdul Kalam becomes the country's eleventh President.

A.P.J. ABDUL KALAM was sworn in the 11th President of India at a brief but impressive ceremony in the Central Hall of Parliament on July 25. The ceremony, which was replete with symbolism, ended with Abdul Kalam reciting from his book Song of Youth, in which he pledges to "keep the lamp of knowledge burning, to achieve the vision - Developed India".

Abdul Kalam was administered the oath of office by the Chief Justice of India, Justice B.N. Kirpal. Among those present at the ceremony were the outgoing President K.R. Narayanan, Vice-President Krishan Kant, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, members of the Union Cabinet, members of both Houses of Parliament, the Chief Ministers of Jammu and Kashmir, Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan, representatives of foreign countries, friends and family members of Abdul Kalam and a hundred schoolchildren from across the country. After the ceremony, the President inspected the customary guard of honour and moved into Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Dressed in a formal black bandhgala suit and sporting his usual hairstyle, Abdul Kalam began his stint as President by declaring his "unflinching commitment to the principle of secularism". Secularism, he said, was the "cornerstone of our nationhood" and the "key feature of our civilisational strength." After taking over, Abdul Kalam departed from the usual practice and made a brief speech. He said that during the past year, he had met a number of spiritual leaders of all religions and they all had echoed one message: unity of the minds and hearts of the people. "I would like to endeavour to work for bringing about unity of minds among the divergent traditions of our country," he said.

He also declared his commitment to the parliamentary form of democracy and the basic structure of the Indian Constitution. He said he was confident that the Constitution would continue to be responsive to the demands of changing situations. "The first and foremost task is to respect and uphold the constitutional processes, in the best interest of our people and our nation, without fear or favour and with fairness and firmness," he said. He reiterated his vision of a developed and strong India. Quoting from Thirukkural, the Tamil classic, he said that the important elements that constituted nation well-being included health, high productivity, harmonious living and strong defence. He said that all efforts should be directed at building these elements at various levels in a coherent and integrated manner. Quoting Kabir, he said that acting in time was the essence of success: "Kal kare so aaj kar, aaj kare so ab" (What you want to do tomorrow, do it today and what you want to do today, do it now).

National security, he stressed, needed to be recognised by every Indian as a national priority. "Making India strong and self-reliant - economically, socially and militarily - is our foremost duty to our motherland and to oursleves and to our future generations," he said. He said it was unfortunate that India, despite its rich natural resources, vibrant society and strong traditional value system, had remained a developing country with many of its citizens living below the poverty line, undernourished and lacking in even primary education. Besides, he said, there were other challenges such as cross-border terrorism, internal conflicts and unemployment. "To face these challenges there must be a vision to ensure focussed action... for transforming India into a developed nation," he said. Thanking Members of Parliament and State legislatures for having reposed faith in him by electing him, he promised to endeavour to fulfil the aspirations of the people in order to realise their shared dream of prosperity, harmony and strength.

It was a sober ceremony, and the excitement witnessed on the day the election result was declared was missing. Abdul Kalam shook hands with Narayanan and Krishan Kant and greeted the others with folded hands before moving out of the Central Hall. His family members attracted particular attention. Advani walked up to them to greet them personally. The others followed suit.

FROM watching the flight of seagulls on the seashore to designing guided missiles, from delivering satellite launch vehicles to exploding the nuclear bomb - for the boy from Rameswaram, in Tamil Nadu, the journey has culminated at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Kalam, 71, won the presidential election defeating Lakshmi Sahgal, the candidate fielded by the Left parties, on July 18. Abdul Kalam won 4,152 votes, with a vote value of 9,22,884, which is 89.58 per cent of the total vote, while Sahgal secured 459 votes, with a vote value of 1,07,366 votes, which was 10.42 per cent of the total vote. The race was practically one-sided, as the entire political spectrum, barring the Left and the Janata Dal (Secular), supported Kalam. The declaration of the result was made by Rajya Sabha Secretary-General R.C. Tripathi, the returning officer.

Although the outcome was on expected lines, there were minor surprises. For example, Lakshmi Sahgal received 17,000 votes more than the share of the Left and the Janata Dal (S). She secured two votes from the Delhi Assembly, which has only Congress(I) and BJP members. It was another surprise that of a total of 174 invalid votes, 42 were cast by MPs, making one wonder whether it was intentional. Some of the ballot papers contained not only votes for the candidates but also words of advice. An MLA from Maharashtra suggested in his ballot paper that either Kalam cut his hair short or advise Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to wear his hair long so that both the "brahmacharis" could sport a similar look. An MP felt that Lakshmi Sahgal should have contested 20 years earlier.

From the moment the election result was announced, Kalam, who was at his modest Asiad Village home in the capital, was inundated with phone calls and visitors. Kalam used the opportunity to outline his vision: to transform India from a developing to a developed nation in 20 years. On being asked whether he would be a neutral President, he said: "A President is a President. There is nothing like a neutral President." He thanked his parents and his friends and attributed his success to Vikram Sarabhai, Satish Dhawan and Brahma Prakash. Interestingly, although Kalam has persisted in keeping his hair long, he went along with protocol and wore a bandhgala suit for the swearing-in. Meanwhile, his desire to address the nation immediately after taking over was not approved by the government. Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pramod Mahajan, who was also his election agent and was the first to inform him about his election, told Kalam that there was no such precedent. So the nation will have to wait until Independence Day-eve to hear the new President speak.

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