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Saturday, Jun 15, 2002

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Kalam: An odyssey that does not end

M. Somasekhar


THIS is not a classic rags to riches story, but a rare odyssey of rags to fame — the rise of India's `missile' man, Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, from a poor family struggling to afford schooling to the country's highest position, the man who would be the next President of India.

From the humble beginnings in the tranquil shore town of Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu to the Rashtrapathi Bhavan, the journey of the Avul Phakir Jainulabedan Abdul Kalam to fame is a trajectory of achievements built on dreams, grit and determination.

In India, where icons are invariably from the silver screen like Amitabh Bachan or Madhuri Dixit or the world of cricket such as Sachin Tendulkar and Kapil Dev or politicians, Dr Kalam from the scientific fraternity is a rare exception in recent years. In most polls and ratings seeking the most popular Indian of the century done during the year 2000, Dr Kalam emerged on top of the charts.

Dr Kalam being catapulted to the numero uno position also symbolises the great strength of the country to recognise a person, who at the current time in the nation's history is identified as the `man of the masses', due to his down-to-earth approach and humility. At the same time, his ascendancy to the most imposing building on Raisina Hill in Lutyens Delhi marks the recognition of a non-political person of eminence after Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan.

The young man, who used to dream of becoming a pilot, missed the flight somewhere, but ended up building rockets and missiles for the country instead. The early part of Dr Kalam's life is a typical case of struggle, most common in poor Indian families. But, what set apart Dr Kalam were his tremendous will power and inherent genius, which propelled him to achieve greater heights.

Fame literally chased him from the time he became the project leader of the Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV) in the Department of Space, under the giant personality of Prof Satish Dhawan in the 1970s. After the failure of the first test launch, the second flight succeeded and helped place India on the course to emerging as a space power in the next two decades.

But fame, success and praise sit lightly on the shoulders of this short-statured, 71-year-old man with flowing hair and frugal habits. The successful launch of `Agni', the intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM), which placed India in the exclusive club of missile technology capable countries, or being bestowed with the nation's highest civilian honour of Bharat Ratna have not made the man rest on his laurels, but instead have spurred him on to greater goals.

Before the sudden call to be the Presidential nominee of the NDA came, Dr Kalam, who laid down office of the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Prime Minister a few months ago was deeply involved in the ambitious mission of contacting a lakh of young people across the length and breadth of the country to know their dreams, aspirations and the kind of India they wanted to build.

A bachelor, wedded to self-reliance in technology, Dr Kalam's passion is to see India transformed from a developing nation to a developed nation. He has relentlessly pursued this vision, be it in the space programmes or the Defence Ministry or in leading the scientific community efforts to prove desi capabilities .

The classic example of India developing the supercomputer in the face of sanctions by the US and indirectly humbling the computer giant - Cray Computers (which later faced bankruptcy and was rescued by Silicon Graphics), is testimony to Dr Kalam's leadership abilities to bring together India's scientific strengths in different institutes to face up to global challenges. At the same time, there are a few isolated instances where the `Kalam magic touch' has also been found wanting, say his critics who however are not many. The delays in the missile production programme, the lack of enthusiasm shown by private industry to adapt the technologies developed by DRDO, especially Dr Kalam's pet area of `spin-offs', the light combat aircraft and the targets of self-reliance in the defence material are some

Dr Kalam is a versatile person. His passion is not limited to science alone. He is a poet, plays veena and is conversant with both the Quran as well as the Bhagvad Gita. An interesting episode from his days in Hyderabad as leader of the missile programme best illustrates this character. After the first successful launch of Agni, when the much elated Dr Kalam was asked by a reporter how the missiles in the programme had names such as Agni, Prithvi, Nag, Akash and Trishul, Dr Kalam said: "I have selected these names, because they have great significance in the country's history and Hindu mythology." Similarly, when asked if he was remorseful as a scientist to have been responsible for developing a weapon of mass destruction — Agni, Dr Kalam quoted from the Bhagvad Gita and said "I am like Arjuna doing my duty to the country".

The Vision 2020 exercise he spearheaded in collaboration with the Technology Information Forecasting and Assessment Council (TIFAC) and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), which identified 17 areas to make India self-reliant in technologies, is based on the premise that `strength recognises strength'.

His biggest asset perhaps is forging team spirit or building consortia in taking up national challenges and solving them. The most shining example of this trait is undoubtedly the `Pokhran-2' nuclear blasts in May 1998.

Under the code `Operation Shakti', the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) led by Dr R. Chidambaram (who succeeded Dr Kalam as Scientific Advisor), the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and the Armed Forces, formed a perfect synergy to firmly transform India from nuclear-capable into nuclear power.

In every important position he has held, Dr Kalam has shown a missionary zeal to produce results for which his recipe is to bring together talents and motivate people to achieve it.

Be it the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP), the defence research projects, drinking water, agriculture in Bihar or the spin-offs of defence research to help society, this common thread is visible.

Perhaps, this great trait alone could stand Dr Abdul Kalam, the 11th President of India, in good stead, as the country today is facing multiple challenges on many fronts such as religion, law and order, technology and across the borders.

A highly accomplished personality such as Dr Kalam, with a universal appeal, could indeed be best placed to bring together people, and put the country on course to emerging as a superpower in the present millennium.

Dr Kalam - the dreamer, the motivator and the achiever - has many more miles to go, with his Vision 2020 to see India a developed nation beckoning him to bigger challenges.

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