In mid-2003, I wrote a paper titled “The Economic Strangulation of Bihar” which was first published in the Economic and Political Weekly and then expanded into a booklet. I sent a copy to former Prime Minister Chandrashekhar, who was the one who introduced me to Bihar and with whom I travelled extensively in that state. Chandrashekharji sent it to the then President APJ Abdul Kalam.

Within a few days I received a call from Rashtrapati Bhavan saying the president wants to meet me. I was a few minutes late, but the president was waiting in the company of Chandrashekharji. The president wanted me to elaborate on what I had written. I told him that I had a PowerPoint presentation and would like to run the slides past him before a discussion. I get very eloquent and emotional when I speak about Bihar.

I think the PPT was adequate and the points made with telling effect. There was a brief moment of silence. Then President Kalam asked me softly, “How can India go forward leaving Bihar behind?” He kept repeating this phrase for many months from various public forums.

But the politicians were not interested and little has been done since then. There was an aftermath to this. In 2004, Lalu Prasad Yadav had the booklet translated into Hindi and a few thousand copies of it disseminated in Bihar during the elections. Whenever he was asked about his government’s dismal performance, he waved this report and said there was a conspiracy against him by starving Bihar of its rightful funding and the proof was in the report. Lalu won and went on to become the Railway Minister where he performed yet another sleight of hand. And Kalam was left still asking, “How can India go forward leaving Bihar behind?”

Unlike presidential predecessors

APJ Abdul Kalam had little in common with his predecessors. He did not have the educational attainments of Radhakrishnan, Zakir Hussain and Shankar Dayal Sharma who had PhDs from top-notch institutions. Kalam just had an engineering degree from Madras University. He did not have the political training of presidents like Rajendra Prasad, VV Giri and Pranab Mukherjee, whose political and constitutional understanding was tested in politically uncertain times. His entire professional lifetime was spent in the Defence Research and Development Organization.

The DRDO has not exactly distinguished itself in any great way. The sum of its failures is far greater than its achievements. Some of its failures are most notable. The Arjun main battle tank is still bumbling along. The nuclear submarine project delivered some decades too late and still faces uncertainty. The Light Combat Aircraft is just the late combat aircraft; so late that it will be obsolete when it enters service in the next decade. Even the 5.56mm basic infantry combat weapon is a bit of a dud, requiring the frequent import of AK-47 rifles, much to the delight of Delhi’s arms agents.

Kalam had earned a reputation as the father of India’s missile programme. That might be so, but the offspring are not worth writing home about. Our missile programme is so far behind the times that even the North Koreans, a woebegone and desolate country where people still die of starvation, are ahead of us. Like the Pakistanis, we would have been better off buying North Korean missiles like the Nodong (Pak name Ghauri). Many also credit Kalam as the being the father of India’s nuclear weapons programme. That programme has, mercifully, had little to do with the DRDO and is almost entirely an Atomic Energy Commission show. What then was Kalam’s kamaal?

An erudite nationalist

Clearly Kalam is no Werner von Braun who designed the Nazi V-1 and V-2 rockets and then led America’s manned foray into space with Alan Shepard’s sub-orbital fight. He most certainly is no Kurchatkov who pioneered the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons programme. But yet he is clearly among the best of presidents we have had. There is much that is admirable about Kalam. He was honest to the core. He was erudite. He knew Sanskrit. He translated the Thirukural from Tamil into English. He was a nationalist with few peers. He had other technology interests also. He, along with Hyderabad’s eminent cardiologist Dr Soma Raju, developed a low-cost coronary stent.

He was also a bachelor and so had no offspring like Zail Singh’s grandson who shot pigeons in the Rashtrapati Bhavan or like Shankar Dayal Sharma’s grandnephew Manu Sharma who was convicted of murdering Jessica Lal. He had no foster family either who might cause him greater embarrassment.

But for a modest man, with mostly modest achievements, APJ Abdul Kalam captured the imagination of young people like no president did before. He made us believe in ourselves and think the sky was never too high. He dreamed of things that never were and wondered why not? As a nation we came up short, but that did not deter Kalam. He made it his life mission to exhort the young to greatness. India’s young will miss him.