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From Missile to Messianism
The beginning of the odyssey of a proactive president

Notwithstanding the apprehensions of Leftist parties, their presidential candidate Lakshmi Sehgal, and a minuscule section of the general public that a nuclear scientist as president of the Indian Union is dangerous to the nation, the readiness with which Dr APJ Abdul Kalam accepted the invitation of the NDA and the Congress (I) to be their presidential candidate, brushing aside criticism with his perspicacious assertion that the nation is greater than the individual (the individual being none other than himself and the nation contextually used for the ensemble of divergent views on this individual, thereby reaffirming the right to dissent as central to any healthy democracy), his election as president with ease, his role-change as resident with élan, and in his capacity as president, his recent visit to Gujarat with empathy (despite some self-appointed pundits crying foul that his visit to the relief camps and interaction with MPs are constitutional improprieties) should augur well for the nation, and raise at least four issues for discussion.

One, despite all the debilitating problems which India has been facing, of which individuals are undoubtedly the worst victims, despite the persistence of the stranglehold of centuries-old caste system of which individuals irrespective of religion are again the worst victims, India’s diversity, complexity, and plurality has ensured the phoenix like rise of certain individuals from the dung heaps of dark, depressing, and dispiriting traditions to which society had consigned them to the galaxy of luminaries.

If Dr BR Ambedkar, architect of the Indian Constitution was one classic example of this rise, Dr. Kalam is another. That Kalam is head of the constitutional order, which Ambedkar crafted, may be just a coincidence, but certainly an important one. Though the Ambedkars and Kalams may be few and far between in a country whose population is now more than one billion and about one-sixth of the world population, the very emergence of them points to the potential inherent in individuals to break shackles, and march towards the creation of a better social order. 

Two, Dr. Kalam did not become a nuclear scientist to sit on a nuclear pile and use it as he fancied. One may not agree with his claim that nuclear weapons are a deterrent even to conventional wars. But given his scientific (and now the fast unfolding political) acumen, he is certainly a better judge of his conviction. What is important is, with or without Dr Kalam India would have gone nuclear, and with or without India Pakistan would have gone nuclear. So, holding his brilliant scientific background against him, when several important positions in the country are cornered by political nitwits and nincompoops who cannot see beyond their nose and who use their position mostly for self-aggrandisement, is ludicrous.

Three, the Constitution of any nation, especially any democratic nation, should have only liberating and not any constricting effects on its citizens. In that sense, the advocacy of certain self-styled constitutional pundits that visiting relief camps, interacting with MPs, etc., are not part of the brief of the Indian president is bizarre. 

In some sense these Pundits cannot be blamed; for, it is mostly the actions and inactions of some of the Indian presidents that have reduced the vibrant Indian Constitution to a largely dormant document for well over 50 years. In this context, it is important to recall Abu Abraham’s cartoon of Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed signing the Emergency Declaration from his bathtub. So also the misdemeanours of Zail Singh. Worse still was the role of R. Venkataraman as a copybook president. His book My Presidential Years, recounting with pride how he introduced the South Indian (read the typical Madrasi, and if you wish Brahmin!) idly, vadai, sambhar in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the countries he visited as India’s constitutional head, the queens he met, their apparel and bodily assets (for example, the Tiara) he observed, and so on, can mortify any sweating, straining, slogging, and toiling Indian; for, it is at his expense that Indian presidents as ceremonial heads have remained India’s lotus-eaters, at the summit of the hierarchies of India’s social prestige, prerogatives, and material comforts. 

As it is this foul and parasitic ambience of the Rashtrapati Bhavan that Dr. Kalam has entered like a waft with his vision of a new India, he will have to clear a lot of cobwebs within and outside its moorings and surroundings.

Four, democracy by its very nature is federalism, and federalism means distribution of power. If India, despite its federal polity has failed to mature into a full-blooded federal democracy, it is again the presidents who should bear the brunt of the blame. For, their preoccupations all along have been visiting dubious godmen, and picnic spots in India and touring the world as VVIPs, all at the expense of the public, and not social wellbeing and helping the nation democratise itself as envisaged by the framers of the Constitution. 

Seen against this background, Dr. Kalam’s visit to Gujarat mainly to give that much-needed healing touch to the thousands of victims of a minority community, traumatised by the holocaust of Hindu communalism aided and abetted by a state ruled by Hindu communalists, and his proactive role there, can be seen as the beginning of the odyssey of a proactive president, and a well-deserved switch from missile to messianism. In some sense Dr Kalam will be a fitting counterpoise to Hindu, and for that matter any other communalism, and a persuasive harbinger of the Indian version of secularism. It is he who will be rewriting the Indian Constitution and not the Justice Venkatachalaiah Commission, whose report on the Constitution Review has been gathering dust. And that by itself will be his most powerful missile. However, at the back of my mind I have a nagging feeling that as Hindu fanatics have never spared what they would have others believe was heresy (Godse, Gandhi’s killer is an example), it remains to be seen whether they will allow this maverick messiah to be active for long.

¯ P. Radhakrishnan

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