Thursday, June 10, 2004

Profile of India's President: APJ Abdul Kalam

As most readers probably know, India's Parliamentary system has a Prime Minister, who has most of the real power in government, and a President, who has authority mainly in forming new governments, as well as dissolving them in instances of crisis. The President is supposed to be neutral with regard to constituency, and is therefore not allowed to be a member of Parliament himself before being elected to office (he is elected by a special electoral college-- not by popular vote).

India's current PM is Manmohan Singh, about whom I have already written. But its President is a man named Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen (APJ) Abdul Kalam, a Tamilian Muslim who was, for most of his adult life, an aeronautical engineer for the Indian missile program. He was quite successful there, and was the leader of the programs that led to the successful development of the AGNI and PRITHVI missiles.

Kalam is a fascinating man, but his actual personal contribution to political life in India is unclear. He has real power -- the President has the power to dissolve governments and call for new elections -- but as of now he has not had to use it. Even powers such as Article 356 are only arguably associated with the President; in recent invocations, the center's power to dissolve intransigent state governments seems to have been used more as a political tool at the will of Parliament than as a power of the President. (There have long been criticisms of the abuse of Article 356. See this interview with Supreme Court Justice Krishna Iyer on Article 356, and this helpful summary in The Hindu on the limitations of the Statute according to the Bommai ruling of the Supreme Court in 1994.)

"200% Indian" Kalam has a personal webpage, as well as an official, 'President of India' page. There was, briefly, a blog dedicated to following Kalam's doings, as well as this helpful biography. Sify also has a profile of him, which is interesting because of its emphasis on Kalam's "Indianness" -- these profiles all refer to Kalam as "200% Indian," as if being merely 100% Indian would be somehow unconvincing. To me, the repeated reference to Kalam's "Indianness" suggests that there is some discomfort with an Indian Muslim in such a position of power. (Perhaps not a lot -- but read the Sify piece and see what you think)

Science and Technology. Kalam is a technocrat, which is sometimes good and sometimes bad. On the one hand, his science background means that his record is clean and full of decisive professional accomplishments. Especially impressive are his involvement in the development of India's first satellites, as well as its ballistic missile capability. It also means that his interest in scientific progress (including economic progress) is more important than any particular political line.

'Connectivity' vs. Condoms. But technocrats also sometimes lack a sense of human proportion or the humility of politicians driven by messy historical realities. Kalam's speeches are long on science, but short on emphasis on civil rights or social justice. For example, read this speech, from Republic Day 2003. Here Kalam enumerates science program after science program -- biomedical research, space exploration, defense, 'knowledge society', and a lot of talk about 'connectivity' in rural areas. Many of the programs are oriented towards solving India's human problems -- he does mention AIDS research at one point. But he sees AIDS it as a problem for more science & research, not as a social problem that will require some awkward references to condoms, sex, and drug use before it can be contained in India.

Religion and Secularism. Kalam is a spiritual man, with personal connections to both Hinduism and Islam (he is a Ram Bhakt, but he also does Muslim prayers twice a day). This flexibility on religion -- Kalam is clearly secular, but not too secular -- is in my view an important factor in why he (as a Muslim) was the chosen candidate of the NDA (BJP coalition) in 2002.

There was some controversy over some statements in Kalam's recent speech (7th June) to Parliament on the occasion of the opening of the new session:

The outcome of the elections is indicative of people’s yearning for inclusiveness – economic, social and cultural and their rejection of the forces of divisiveness and intolerance. The verdict is for establishing the rule of law and repairing our secular fabric. This Government is committed to providing the right ambience for fulfilling the aspirations implicit in the people’s mandate.

This is clearly a criticism of the preceding government -- which Kalam was actually a part of. But in fact, this speech is always ceremonial; the contents are given to him by the ruling party (in this case, Congress). Kalam is more or less simply reciting them (thanks to the commentors on Jivha for pointing this out to me). So praising or criticizing him for this statement is misplaced; the speech was authored by the Congress Party. One can, however, assign Kalam responsibility for mentioning secularism in his first speech to Parliament in July 2002, on the occasion of assuming the office of the President:

I wish to emphasize my unflinching commitment to the principle of secularism, which is the corner stone of our nationhood and which is the key feature of our civilisational strength. During the last one year I met a number of spiritual leaders of all religions. They all echoed one message, that is, unity of minds and hearts of our people will happen and we will see the golden age of our country, very soon. I would like to endeavour to work for bringing about unity of minds among the divergent traditions of our country.

This is a very small reference in a speech that is big on vague generalities. But it is interesting, and at least a little bold, considering he was being put into power on the strength of a BJP government that had come into power denouncing "secularism," and that moreover had been associated with anti-Muslim riots in Gujurat just a few months earlier.

Kalam did denounce the killings of Muslims in Gujurat, but before assuming the Presidency (according to this source) he didn't criticize either Narendra Modi or the BJP.

Personal On a lighter note, Kalam is unmarried, and a teetotaller and vegetarian. He also plays the Veena and has an appreciation for Tamil poetry. He often quotes the famous Tamil poets Bharatidasana and Subramania Bharatiyar ("who died in 1939 at the age of 35, killed by an elephant while giving it a coconut"). In one recent Parliamentary speech, I saw a quote from the great Bhatki/Sufi mystic Kabir: "Kaal 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").