Abdul Kalam’s passing has seen a national outpour of grief. This emotional unity in a diverse India is rare in peacetime. No other public figure endeared himself to all sections of society and influenced the minds of millions as Kalam did in the past three decades. The sense of loss Indians feel at Kalam’s death is palpable and transcends the traditional divisions of caste, region, religion, language or political affiliation.
Kalam achieved outstanding success from humble beginnings. The story of his remarkable life is known to every Indian schoolchild. Given our societal attitudes and lack of access to quality education, it is extremely difficult for Indian children not born to privilege to fulfil their potential and make a mark in life. Millions in India saw in Kalam the hope of fulfilling aspirations and achieving eminence in their chosen field. He kept urging young Indians to break out of the shackles of poverty and tradition, to dream big, and to work hard to fulfil their aspirations. And he always linked individual aspirations with national greatness. It is this consistent articulation of individual growth with public good that has left an enduring impact on most Indians, particularly students and youth.
Kalam had many endearing qualities. His utter simplicity and shunning of pomp and privilege touched the hearts of millions in a society used to arrogance of power. It is customary in India for those in office to display their trappings of power, distance themselves from the people, abuse public office for private gain, live ostentatiously, have airs of superiority and foster a VIP culture. Kalam was refreshingly different, and in recent decades was exceptional in his humility, simple life, common touch and speaking straight from the heart.
Indians have developed a great distaste for traditional politics and partisan bickering. Kalam was a symbol of non-partisanship. He was remarkably devoid of malice and pettiness. Those who knew him well won’t be able to recall a single comment of bitterness or prejudice in his private or public utterances. He transcended caste, religion, region and language, and represented the best in our society.
Throughout his long and distinguished life, Kalam retained a child-like curiosity and enthusiasm. His infinite capacity to absorb new ideas and learn, and readiness to spread sensible ideas and successful models made him a great communicator and teacher. Young or old, men or women, all audiences could easily relate to his simple, straight message. By his own estimate, he directly interacted with over 20 million people, mostly students and youth, over the past two decades. The fact that he collapsed and died as he was interacting with students in Shillong at the age of 83 demonstrates his tireless energy and his identification with all languages and regions of India. This poor Muslim boy from coastal Tamil Nadu became a true symbol of the diverse, multilingual, multi-religious India of many layers and many diverse strands.
Perhaps Kalam’s most impressive quality was his robust, undying optimism. He had great faith in the power of technology, and passionately believed India could achieve greatness if we harnessed our opportunities and pursued a path of common sense. His broader priorities and prescriptions for economic growth and national greatness are practical and attainable. He relentlessly focused on agriculture, food processing and urban amenities in rural areas; infrastructure, in particular, reliable and quality electricity accessible to all; quality education and healthcare for all to give real opportunity to every family; information and communication technologies; and critical technologies and strategic industries related to defence, space and nuclear sectors.
He was not a prophet of doom. He was an eternal optimist and problem-solver, who always saw possibilities and opportunities for the nation. His vision of India emerging as a developed economy within a generation and occupying her rightful place among global giants captivated the nation and electrified the imagination of youth. His vision of national greatness was rooted in improving the living conditions of all Indians. Again, he always sought to establish the link between prosperity and a better life for all Indians and national greatness. It is these personal qualities and his simple, direct message relevant to our age that made him the icon of the younger generation and the much-beloved elder statesman that he was. That is why he became the authentic symbol of a resurgent, aspirational India. And that is why he wielded influence way beyond the offices he held. In recent decades, he stands tallest in terms of the real influence and impact he had on the minds of tens of millions of people.
It would be no exaggeration to say that in his own quiet, simple way, Kalam in recent decades emerged as a great nation-builder. He defined new nationalism for an emerging India. Our sense of nationhood was fashioned by Mahatma Gandhi and our freedom fighters during the national movement. It was largely based on opposition to colonial exploitation, the rejection of racial prejudice of an alien ruler, rediscovery of our past glories and civilisational strengths to shore up our self-esteem, and the deification of Mother India to build unity and patriotic fervour.
Gandhiji, more than any other Indian, built a nation out of disparate, diverse groups, castes, religions, languages and regions. His feat was unique and unrivalled in the annals of world history because there has never been a nation as complex and diverse, and living in as many different layers — spanning from the 17th century to the 21st century — as India. In the past three decades, Kalam helped redefine this sense of nationalism to suit current needs. In this day and age, nationalism has to be based on unity transcending diversity, the fulfilment of aspirations, giving opportunities for growth and prosperity to every child irrespective of birth, the liberty of all citizens irrespective of caste, gender or religion, and respect for universal human values and rights.
Kalam’s most enduring and important legacy will be the fostering of this sense of new nationalism and the robust optimism in India’s quest to fulfil such a vision. Undoubtedly there is a vast gulf between Kalam’s and India’s collective vision and dreams, and the rickety, quarrelsome, inefficient, often corrupt political culture and governance institutions. We need to do a lot, and quickly, to bridge this chasm and make this dream of national greatness and opportunities for all a reality within two decades. Our moribund, partisan, corrupt political process driven by mindless lust for power without purpose needs to be transformed. Politics must once again become a noble endeavour with a purpose, as Mahatma Gandhi envisaged.
Our bureaucracy must be imbued with a sense of purpose, and must become an instrument for delivering services and achieving goals for the public good. We need to give back power with accountability to communities, organisations and institutions at every level so that the best impulses prevail, talents are harnessed, and leadership in every sphere is nurtured. As a people, we must rediscover the capacity to pay a short-term price to promote the prosperity of the next generation and enhance long-term public good. And we need to remind ourselves that the nation is above self, and above accidents of the womb and the many sectarian divisions that continue to plague us.
Gandhiji gave us a sense of nationhood. Kalam endeavoured to inject optimism and show us a practical roadmap. We can, and will, fulfil our national destiny and give opportunity to every child and wipe every tear from every eye, as Mahatma Gandhi had hoped and Kalam dreamt.
(This article was originally published in The Hindu on 30th July 2015)