AMID DOUBTS, MUSLIM SCIENTIST BECOMES INDIA'S PRESIDENT
By Aman Singh
American Reporter India Correspondent
New Delhi, India
NEW DELHI, July 18, 2002 -- In his 72 years, Dr. Aavul Pakkiri Jainulabiddin Abdul Kalam, rose from being a street-corner paper boy in rural Rameshwaran, a small city in the South India state of Tamil Nadu, today became the Muslim elected president of the world's largest democracy. But before his ascension he was already better known to the world as "Missile Man," the father of India's costly drive to nuclearize its armed forces, than he may ever be as the latest occupant of its largely-ceremonial highest office.
His father was a boat builder; he, in turn, built the nuclear weapons that have focused the entire world's attention on an ongoing confrontation between more than a million Indian Army soldiers and Pakistani forces at the top of the South Asian foes' jagged, 1500-mile border.
His wild mop of hair and crisply-wrinkled face gives him look like an aging rock star. While he is beloved for his eccentricities (he gets a haircut just three times a year) and non-political approach to most issues, Kalam headed the controversial nuclear and missile programs and led the team of scientists who conducted nuclear tests at Pokhran in the Rajasthan desert on May 11 and 13, 1998.
"I remember the earth shaking under our feet," he later recalled during an interview where he also spoke about his love for poetry and the veena, an Indian stringed musical instrument.
India's labrynthine political corridors are abuzz with doubts about Kalam's ability, as a completely non-political sceintist who admits to having little knowledge beyond science and the power of the atom, to function as a President, but the scientist was ready for his critics with a warm smile and a remarkably eloquent speech when the election results came in today.
The strong Left parties in opposition, the Communist Party of India (CPI) and Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI (M), strongly opposed his candidacy opting for Captain Lakshmi Sehgal, a soldier from Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose's Indian National Army (INA) which played a crucial role in India's struggle for freedom from colonial-era Britain.
Despite any doubts, though, Kalam's colleagues instantly vouch for his "Indian-ness" and speak readily of his immense love for his country. They frequently mention that he consistently refused all offers to do his research overseas, opting instead to remain here, even at far lower pay, to develop his research and inventions.
In fact, Kalam's only exposure abroad was in the early 1960's, when he was invited by America's National Aeronautics and Space Administration to spend four months at NASA's Wallops Island Rocketry Center and the Langley Research Center in Virginia. In early 1964, he hurried home.
What his uncertain path to the Rashtrapati Bhavan, India's official residence for its head of state, also illustrates how outrageously unsuited he may be to hold the highest office in the country, - at least by the standards of a century past.
A vegetarian and a teetotaler, Abdul Kalam recites the Muslim Koran and the Hindu Bhagavad Gita with equal ease and belief. A confirmed bachelor, he burst into limelight after the 1998 Pokharan nuclear tests conducted by India. His eccentricities have preceded him to his official residence, which he will move into on July 25, among them his refusal to wear formal attire, especially Western attire, in his official office.
Kalam attributes his keen interest in aeronautical engineering to the flight of seagulls, which left him spell-bound as a child.
The way he sees it, ending up at the Directorate of Technical Development (Air) and Production (DTD&P), was a "religious coincidence." He was selected without much challenge for that job after standing ninth in the batch of 25 officer candidates at the Air Force selection board interview. Only eight officers were selected for commissions, and Kalam felt the opportunity to join the IAF slipping from his hands. Facinated by the long, graceful flight of seagulls early in his childhood, he had his heart set on a future in aeronautical engineering.
Disappointed at his rejection by the IAF, Kalam visited Rishikesh, a holy shrine of the Hindus, where he bathed in the holy Ganga and met Swami Sivananda - "a man who looked like Buddha."
The meeting with the Swami changed his life. He remembers the holy man saying, "Accept your destiny and go ahead with your life. You are not destined to become an IAF pilot. What you are destined to become is not revealed now but it is predetermined. Forget this failure, as it was essential to lead you to your destined path. Search, instead, for the true purpose of your existence. Become one with yourself, my son! Surrender yourself to the wish of God."
The Swami's advice apparently worked for Kalam. Almost immediately afterwards, he received an appointment letter from DTD&P immediately and joined the research unit in New Delhi as a Senior Scientific Assistant at the robust salary of 250 rupees, or $5.20 a month. Posted to the Technical Center (Civil Aviation), he began to live out his his dream - if not flying airplanes, making airplanes fly.
He continued at the DTD&P undertook a preliminary design study on the human centrifuge, designing and developing a vertical takeoff and landing platform, and even a "hot cockpit" to go with it. Three years later, he joined the Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) in Bangalore.
At ADE, Kalam served as a senior scientific assistant, heading a small team that developed a prototype hovercraft. Defense Minister Krishna Menon rode in India's first indigenous hovercraft with Kalam at the controls. But for reasons never explained, the project - far ahead of its time - was not encouraged, and its rejection was probably one reasons why he joined India's nascent space program in 1962.
Kalam joined the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), where he created the Fiber Reinforced Plastics (FRP)division, and after a stint with the aerodynamics and design group, joined the satellite launch vehicle team for the Trivandram rocket. Soon, he was Project Director for SLV-3 rocket. He accepted the entire responsibility of the design, development, qualification and flight-testing of 44 major sub-systems. The project managed to put Rohini, a scientific satellite, into orbit in July 1980.
Showered with Indian honor medallions for his achievements, Kalam' defied all expectations for his retirement and joined the Defense Research and Development Organization as its Director the next year, and was entrusted with the Integrated Guided Missile Development Program, India's most successful military research project to date.
All the missiles went up more or less on schedule: Trishul in 1985, Prithvi in 1988, Agni in 1989 and the others in 1990. The development and successful flight tests established India's indigenous capacity for self-defense. The successful launching of the country's Agni surface-to-surface missile was a unique achievement, making India a member of an exclusive club of highly developed countries. The Trishul has the unique distinction of being capable of serving all three Indian armed services.
His brilliant career has not been without a soft spot for children. He recounts an incident he considers a special milestone in his life, when an orthopedic surgeon from the Nizam Institute of Medical Sciences visited his laboratory and lifted a lightweight material Kalam's scientists had developed. The surgeon invited him to his hospital, where he "showed Kalam to the patients." The sight of little girls and boys dragging their feet around with heavy metallic calipers weighing over seven pounds each wrenched his heart, Kalam said.
In three weeks, Kalam had readied "Floor reaction Orthosis" calipers and taken them to the orthopedic center. "The children didn't believe their eyes," Kalam said. "From dragging around a seven-pound load on their legs, they could now move around! Their parents had tears in their eyes. It was sheer bliss for me!" The new calipers weighed just a pound.
The establishment in 1988 of the Research Center Imarat (RCI), a campus five miles from the Defense Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL) was perhaps the most satisfying achievement for Kalam during the missile years. He got generous funding from the government to build the futuristic center, its state-of-the-art facilities completely focused on work in advanced missile technologies few R&D institutions can match. Kalam's interest in the environment saw the center create a small farm in a rocky wasteland that meets the food requirements of those who stay in the RCI quarters.
Reluctantly giving up his scientific freedom, Kalam came to New Delhi in 1991 to take over as the Scientific Adviser to the Defense Minister although many in DRDL felt he didn't want the job.
In Delhi, he had to deliver prestigious projects like the Arjun MBT and the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) projects. "Strength respects strength," was known as his standard response to questions about whether India needed its own missiles, battle tanks and combat aircraft. Indeed, Trishul's recent multiple test flights have demonstrated that the system Kalam put in place has inherent strengths.
Kalam is by no means a miracle man. As the head of a vast network of laboratories his "products" include avalanche control structures in Kashmir, water desalination kits for the Thar Desert, and a world-class sonar submarine finder for the INS Delhi, the country's latest warship, and infrared night vision goggles for the Indian Army.
But those who know him say Kalam's attention has always been a bit diffused. His self-effacing persona cloaks a formidable catalyst that can make people work with energy and satisfaction.
Kalam was always happiest at the drawing board and in discussions with his scientists on how their dreams for the next millennium can be fulfilled. He is still remembered by his co-scientists as an ambitious dreamer who could talk for hours on the future of India and his potential role in it.
In fact, his new projects reflected this quality. These include an air-breathing hyperplane spacecraft that draws oxygen from the atmosphere rather than carry it all the way from the ground, reusable missiles and stealth technology. But Kalam's reputation doesn't end with his scientific inventions and dreams. He turned them into realities in a way his admirers say shows high administrative and diplomatic intelligence. He has shown that with adequate funding, freedom from procedural blockage and people-oriented management, India can make products otp international technical standards even in a demanding arena like defense.
But when one of those asdmirers approaches with something like awe on his or her face, he has always been prompt enough to brush it aside, saying that his life has shown him four milestones that remain dear to his heart. These include his twenty years at ISRO for which he says, "These years played a very important role in my life of a scientist," he has often said.
He considers his participation in India's guided missile program in DRDO as another milestone. He even goes to the extent of describing this opportunity enjoying his "second bliss when Agni met its mission requirements in 1994." Then the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and DRDO forged a tremendous partnership that resulted in the nuclear tests of May 11 and 13, 2001.
"We are no longer a developing nation but one of them. It made me feel very proud as an Indian," he declared then. "The fact that we have developed a re-entry structure for Agni, for which we have developed this new material, makes me feel complete," he said about the tests.
Covering a vast area, rejecting all known theories, and dreaming big has distinguished Kalam has in his lifetime as a civilian. A breather from his academics career became a political advance that saw him named Principal Scientific Advisor to the Prime Minister's Ooffice, where he advised on overall scientific development in the country on issues relating to scientific and technical policy in different sectors.
On December 8, 2000, the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, K.C. Pant conferred the "Life-time Contribution Award in Engineering 2000" on Kalam at the annual function of the Indian National Academy of Engineering (INE). However, on November 10, 2001, the wonder scientist of India quit as principal scientific advisor to the government, saying he realized that politics was not for him.
Sources close to Kalam, say he quit because of "lack of executive authority." However, Kalam had been keen to pursue academic interests and help scientists across the country in developing their research capabilities. He trmainrd in that role by taking over as ISRO's distinguished professor, far from politics and foreign affairs.
Dr. Kalam has spent the past few years developing the concept of "India Millennium Missions 2020" - a blueprint for transforming India into a developed nation. He calls it "the second vision of the nation" and says he wants to focus on the children of India to ignite in their minds a love for science and the nation's mission: a developed India. However, it seems fate has different designs for he has come back to the political main front with a bang.
The showers of praise and pride that people known to him display when asked about him is remarkable for a man who has always tried to live in his own shadow. His next goal unbelievably is to produce a reusable missile which no country in the world has been able to produce yet.
This is slightly marred by the fact that since he hasn't given the Indian public a chance to dissect him and see who he really is, he is being viewed by the common man as a "genius who should stick to his laboratories."
What remains to be seen is whether Kalam, who has managed to keep a perfect balance between the limelight and shadows by remaining backstage through his stints as scientist until today, can now represent India the wiining smile and halo of genius that seems to hover over him. The newspaper boy is long forgotten. Will he be able to become a legend in Indian history, as those past presidents with a political background have?
While the government has managed to send a clear message about its secular nature by choosing a Muslim candidate - something badly needed after the Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat and before the 2004 elections, what remains to be seen is whether Kalam manages to win over disgruntled Indians who think he is too avant-garde for an office that has always boasted ofits acclaimed scholars, not its thrusting geniuses.