This memoir will appeal to two kinds of readers: those who admire A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, and those who are interested in life inside Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Nair, an Indian Administrative Service officer who served as secretary to president Kalam, reinforces popular perceptions about the “missile man”. He may have landed in Rashtrapati Bhavan because of the political arithmetic of the time, but he became influential because of his personality. Kalam comes across as an upright statesman, though Nair confesses he occasionally found Kalam’s enthusiasm tiresome.
Missile man: Nair doesn’t fully explain Kalam’s second-term ambitions. (Photo: Amit Bhargava / Bloomberg)
Nair’s account will be remembered mainly, though, for the revelation that, contrary to newspaper reports, Kalam did not stand in the way of Sonia Gandhi becoming prime minister. He did not advise her against staking a claim because of her foreign origin. After the general elections of 2004, Rashtrapati Bhavan had prepared a letter to appoint Gandhi as prime minister, and it had to be changed at the last minute when Gandhi informed Kalam that Manmohan Singh had been chosen as the prime ministerial candidate. “I told the President that we would not get embroiled in this matter; let the rumours circulate, the truth would still prevail,” Nair writes.
Nair defends Kalam’s assent to the dissolution of the Bihar assembly in May 2005, which was subsequently held unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, and Kalam’s eventual assent to the controversial office of profit Bill after the Union cabinet sent it back to him without changes. Nair claims, though, that Kalam contemplated resigning in the wake of the Supreme Court order.
“Finally, the Constitution prevailed over conscience. The President assented to the Bill on 18 August—seventeen days after he received it back,” Nair writes about the office of profit Bill. “I have not been able to stomach this delay even now. Would you fault me if I said that Kalam erred in this? I wish he hadn’t courted this controversy, whatever his reason for doing so.” One could argue that Kalam could have withheld assent instead, just as Giani Zail Singh did in the case of a legislation designed to grant the government the authority to intercept mail. The president may not be able to force the Union cabinet to rethink a Bill, but he is entitled to delay assent, as Kalam did for a few days.
The author doesn’t offer a convincing explanation of the controversy over Kalam’s ambitions for a second-term either. While Kalam refused to contest for the post, he had indicated that he wouldn’t mind running for the office again if his victory was assured.
Nair, above all, celebrates the ceremonial nature of the president’s office. Despite Kalam’s apparent good intentions, though, it is debatable whether he, or any other president, had a seminal impact on the politics of the day. Moreover, as the choice for his successor reaffirmed, presidents are chosen for their political suitability above anything else.
Nair’s sparse narrative, along with his selection of photographs, offers only glimpses of life in Rashtrapati Bhavan. The tone is matter-of-fact throughout, even as the author expresses his own views on issues he considers important.
Kalam, who was awarded the Bharat Ratna for successfully overseeing India’s missile programme, clearly enjoyed the presidency and brought it closer to people than perhaps any of his predecessors. He showed that much like the British monarchy, the Indian presidency could do with a little more interaction with the masses.
As Nair records in this book, it may be a huge challenge for the Rashtrapati Bhavan staff to respond to every mail that the president receives within 48 hours, as was done during Kalam’s stint, but that is one of the ways to make the office of the president more relevant.