Saturday, January 15, 2005

The Kalam effect

Adul Kalam is a phenomenon. He inspires and enthuses millions of youngsters. Rare is the public figure who has struck such a rapport. With admirable ease, the First Teacher reaches out to studentsónot to preach or moralise but to fire their minds. Smriti Kak Ramachandran writes about the iconic status of the First Citizen.

Kalam with students
Kalam with students: Not just a pose

IT is long after the sky is lit with stars. A man of effective words and convincing actions, he sits in his study poring over an endless stream of questions flashing on the computer screen. Diligently, he strives to address them all. And till he reaches out to the scores of Indiaís children who look up to him for answers, Dr Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam will not call it a day.

"Mr President, the politics of our country has been corrupted by a nexus between politicians, bureaucrats and the criminals. Would Your Excellency suggest measures of cleaning the existent corruption?" asks one, while another seeks a reply to "Which phase of your life do you cherish the most? That of a child, scientist or President?"

Each one gets its reply and while doing so, does it cross the mind of the First Citizen that he is a role model for the youth, an icon they had all been waiting for?

"I will not be presumptuous enough to say that my life can be a role model for anybody; but some poor child living in an obscure place in an underprivileged social setting may find a little solace in the way my destiny has been shaped. It could perhaps help such children liberate themselves from the bondage of their illusory backwardness and hopelessness..." is what the President has to say.

Born on October 15, 1931, at Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu, Kalam specialised in aeronautical engineering from the Madras Institute of Technology. His significant contribution to the countryís space programmes includes development and operationalisation of Agni and Prithvi missiles. He is also credited with building indigenous capability in critical technologies through the networking of multiple institutions.

Listing his achievements can run into thousands of words but more noteworthy has been his status as a role model for the Indian youth, which has won him a place in every heart. There is no doublespeak, there is no false promise, Kalamís vision for India 2020 is not wishful thinking. It is the aim that millions in India today are working to achieve.

His vision underlines that India can become a developed nation only if everyone contributes to the best of his or her ability and capacity. The mission speaks of transforming India into a developed nation by 2020 and what can be the role of every citizen, in addition to the governmental initiatives of launching programmes, to fulfil the vision of a developed India.

The First Citizen, point out many, is leading by example. Whether it is mobilising support for the needy, drawing up a blueprint for the success of the country or coming to the rescue of a student disheartened by his examination results, Kalam makes it a point to respond.

When Akhil Gupta, a Class XII student wrote in desperation to the President complaining that he received an unfair and unbelievable 13 per cent in his physics examination, he was perhaps hoping against hope that the e-mail would not be lost in the vastness of the Rashtrapati Bhavan mailbox. But for the overjoyed student, an awed nation and an embarrassed education board, the Presidentís intervention was a testimony of his concern and commitment to every individual.

"Kalam is the man of the masses. Like a scientist, he grapples with facts and figures and he has a scientific approach even for social problems," says the Vice-Chancellor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Prof G.K. Chadha. He adds, "If you see him addressing the youth, you will see he electrifies the audience`85 he does not let protocol prevent him from interacting with students and, most importantly, he knows what the youth want."

It is this ability of being able to reach out to the youngsters, says Chadha, that makes Kalam "a true leader". "It is not easy to convince the youth. They will always have questions and doubts`85 but he manages to carry the youth with him, which makes him a star and a leader."

The President is as much at ease with a group of intellectuals unravelling the mysteries of science as he is with special children for whom he can draw a rocket with a crayon or recite a poem. The fact that he livens up his presentations with facts and figures also gets him many admirers.

"I have never known any President who uses powerpoint presentations to embellish his address. He is different, a man who speaks with conviction," points out Chadha.

"It was a very special occasion for the students of Mata Vaishno Devi University, which the President inaugurated, when he decided to take an impromptu class, which lasted more than an hour," recalls, SM Khan, Press Secretary to the President.

Khan points out that Kalamís love for children, his ability to speak their language and perceive their strength are reasons for his having already met over 5 lakh children across the country and a wish to meet at least a hundred thousand each year. "We have, on an average, students of about two schools meeting the President each week at Rashtrapati Bhavan," he says.

Many agree that it is the geniality and the honesty in him that makes even the most reluctant child confide in him and treat him as a confidant. He is their friend, teacher and guide.

"When we met the President, we were so nervous`85 but he was so warm and loving. He spoke to us and even clicked pictures with us," recall Arushi Khanna and Aishwarya Bedekar, both students of Class V of Birla Vidya Niketan.

And the imposing gates of the erstwhile Viceregal Lodge have been opened to not just children. There has been a considerable increase in the number of visitors as Kalam has made the Rashtrapati Bhavan more accessible to the people. He plays host to and interacts with not just dignitaries but farmers burdened with difficulties, scientists needing encouragement, and all those who are heading towards his vision 2020.

"There is a special gallery for children, where they are allowed to explore the world of science; there is a herbal garden, and there are arrangements for a virtual tour of the Rashtrapati Bhavan through touch-screen monitors," adds Khan.

The Presidentís daily schedule ó which may include inauguration of a project, address to students, conferences and visits ó can barely be covered in 24 hours yet he finds time for it all. He enjoys meeting students and infusing in them the zeal to achieve big. "Small aim is a big crime" for the President.

Confessing that it is his role as a teacher that he cherishes most, Kalamís focus on education has not gone unnoticed. Pointing out the "big responsibility" that parents and teachers have, he has stressed that "the full development of a child with a value system can only come from these people."

As the President states, "It is very important for every parent to be willing to make the effort to guide children to be good human beings Ė enlightened and hardworking. The teacher, the childís window to learning and knowledge, has to play the role model in generating creativity in the child. This triangle is indeed the real role model I can think of. I would even go to the extent of saying that if parents and teachers show the required dedication to shape the lives of the young, India would get a new life. As it is said: Behind the parents, stands the school, and behind the teacher, the home. Education and the teacher-student relationship have to be seen not in business terms but with the nationís growth in mind."

While for many Kalam is an icon worth emulating, for others he has been a godsend. Like, for instance, the needy and ailing children whose surgery he arranged, for the disabled who now walk thanks to his efforts and for those who have received succour from the Developed India Foundation, a trust he has set up.

The President has even given away his earnings from book royalties to Mother Teresaís Missionaries of Charity.

It is these facets of his personality and more that have won him love and admiration. "Our President is very down to earth and lively. He inspires us to read more and be curious. He wants to improve the future of the generations to come," says Harleen Kaur, a student of Guru Harkrishan Public School, Vasant Vihar, who has interacted with the President.

For Harleen and many like her, the President is a hero who "influences and guides with an aim to help the youth utilise their mettle. We want more people like him, not political speeches," she says. No wonder when the President asked Aishwarya Bedeker what she aspired to become, she replied: "A great person like you".

the presidentís 10-point agenda for the youth

  • I will love whatever profession I take up and will try to excel in it.

  • I will teach at least 10 persons who cannot read or write.

  • I will plant 10 saplings of trees and ensure their growth.

  • I will go to rural and urban areas and reform at least five persons from the habits of gambling and addiction.

  • I will take responsibility for removing the pain of ailing persons.

  • I will take part in the mission of realising the economic strength of India by combining it with education and value systems, and convert religion into a spiritual force.

  • I will not support any differentiation on the count of language or community.

  • I will lead an honest life, free of corruption, set an example for others and adapt a transparent way of life.

  • I will befriend the mentally or physically challenged, and work hard to make them feel normal.

  • I will celebrate the success of my country and my people.

The Rashtrapati Bhavan is deluged with mail to which Kalam loves to personally respond. He is easy to reach at