Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam, commonly known as APJ Abdul Kalam, was sworn in as India’s 11th president on July 25, 2002. A space expert and science administrator by profession, he became the third Muslim (in a predominantly Hindu country) and the first scientist to assume the presidency. He was also the first, and so far, the only person to have stepped into the office without a background in politics.
Presidents in India are indirectly elected by a complex arithmetic of proportional voting. Members of both houses of parliament and all state legislatures are eligible to vote in such elections. Any person aged 35 or more, and eligible to be a member of the lower house of parliament may stand as a candidate. Elections, though, are mostly contested along party lines, and the composition of the electorate and the method of voting mean that the outcomes are often known well in advance.
The center-right Bharatiya Janata Party (“Indian Peoples Party) (BJP) and its National Democratic Alliance, then in power in New Delhi, along with some regional parties nominated Kalam’s candidature on June 10, 2002. A week later, on June 18, 2002, the Congress Party, the principal opposition at the center, also announced its decision to back him. His nomination came months after a state in Western India was rocked by riots along religious lines. Commentators speculated if a Muslim had been nominated to reset India’s (tolerant) image, nationally and beyond.
Kalam, expectedly, won his election by a massive margin, and was sworn in on July 25, 2002. He would remain in office for 5 years.
The Indian presidency, it is often said, is modeled after the British monarchy. At an obvious level, the comparison is misleading. Britain is a monarchy, India is a republic. The president, the head of state, is elected. Indeed, the Indian president is the only nationally, albeit indirectly, elected office under the Constitution. He or she has claim to a degree of constitutional and electoral legitimacy monarchies don’t.
Nonetheless, the Indo-British comparison remains the standard template both in academic and judicial thinking.
Perhaps the most important power of the president is to appoint a prime minister. Ordinarily, this is an easy task. Imported British conventions dictate that the leader of the party with a majority in the lower house of parliament must be invited to form the government. But there are exceptions, and Kalam faced a peculiar challenge two years into his term.
In May 2004, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance won an upset election victory against the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. The Congress party elected its leader, the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, to be the leader of the parliamentary party.
Immediately, protests broke out. Demonstrations and counter demonstrations happened. To many it was a matter of national pride. Adapting from the US Constitution, only naturally born Indian citizens should be prime ministers, they argued. The Indian Constitution, of course, imposes no such limitation.
Kalam had a decision to make. As he weighed his options, some speculated about his reservations in appointing Sonia Gandhi as the prime minister. Ultimately, he didn’t need to decide. Gandhi, enlightened by her “inner voice”, refused the party’s nomination, and instead suggested economist Manmohan Singh as the prime minister. (Singh would hold the prime ministerial reigns for two full terms.) In his account of the presidency, Kalam, for his part, denied claims about his reservations about Sonia Gandhi. He would have appointed the leader of the majority party, whoever that be, he wrote.
President is the head of state, and all decisions are taken in his name. Judicial opinions and academic commentary, once again, interpret the powers of the presidency through a British lens. A president exercises formal powers, it is said; the real powers vest with the council of ministers headed by the prime minister. The latter decides, the president delivers. His discretion is limited, so goes the conventional view.
Presidents may have limited discretion, but they also have endless time in which to decide those matters. And President Kalam demonstrated the enormity of the passive powers of his office. He did so while dealing with mercy petitions of convicts on death row. Ordinarily, mercy petitions are decided by the council of ministers, and passed on to the president for approval.
Kalam, strongly opposed to the death penalty, simply sat on the petitions. He did nothing about them. Of the 21 petitions forwarded to him during his term in office, he sat on all but one.
Occasionally, his inaction attracted controversy, but Kalam remained steadfast. An unequal application of the death penalty (almost all death row convicts were impoverished citizens), he said, was a violation of the Constitution.
Occasionally, his action attracted controversy, too. In India, the central government may dismiss state governments under certain circumstances, impose president’s rule, or dissolve the legislature and initiate new elections. The decision to dismiss a state government is taken by the council of minister but must be approved by the president. In 2005, Kalam signed off on a controversial dismissal by the UPA government, something, he later regretted. He should have studied the matter further, he said, instead of hurrying it. (The dismissal was challenged in the supreme court, and eventually overturned.)
Kalam’s most challenging moment arrived in 2006 after both houses of parliament enacted a self-serving piece of legislation. It retroactively removed disqualifications many members of parliament suffered by holding “offices of profit” – something the Constitution bars. Kalam agonized over the Bill at his desk. He found it unprincipled and hasty. He formally returned the Bill to the two houses asking them to reconsider – the first and only time a president in India has done so. The houses didn’t reconsider; they simply reenacted it. Once again, it landed before Kalam. Unwilling to precipitate a constitutional crisis, he eventually gave his assent. In his autobiography, he called this the “toughest” decision of his presidency.
As he neared the end of his term, questions arose about re-nominating him to the presidency. An organic groundswell of support appeared both in print and electronic media. Newspapers carried large numbers of op-eds and letters to editors expressing support for Kalam. Online petitions swelled with support. For a man who never stood for direct elections, Kalam was a home run; he would have swept away any opposition in a direct contest.
The NDA, his original proposer, extended its support. The Sonia Gandhi-led Congress Party, though, refused. We may never know why.
Fali Nariman, India’s preeminent jurist voiced what millions of Indians felt when he wrote of Kalam’s departure: “We will miss him — that unconventional figure who became India’s First Citizen in July 2002. Never pompous, not even ‘presidential’, he walked into the Palace at Raisina Hill with few worldly goods — he now leaves with even fewer … We could have asked him to stay: but we didn’t … Of him it can be said, as Winston Churchill once said about his departed king: ‘He nothing common did, or mean, upon that memorable scene.’ Memorable scenes are rarely re-enacted, but they are always remembered.” (Fail Nariman, “We’ll miss you, Dr Kalam”, Indian Express, July 23, 2007)
From his first days in office, Kalam was massively popular. Old and young, across political lines, identified with him, and endearingly referred to him as the “people’s president”. His simplicity, his infectious, if inchoate, optimism was his strength. India’s only bachelor president, and in his 70s, he was widely popular with students, and often interacted with them.
A lifelong teacher, poet, and the author of many books, Kalam maintained associations with several universities in India and elsewhere after his presidency. Perhaps fittingly, he died (of a heart attack) while lecturing to a group of students at the Indian Institute of Management, Shillong. He lived in the classroom and died there, too.
At least the for the foreseeable future, APJ Abdul Kalam will remain India’s most endearing apolitical politician.