Despite being handpicked by politicians, former president Abdul J Kalam was arguably the first ever people’s president in India and probably one of the most popular leaders independent India has produced.
And five years in the office haven’t changed Kalam. Rather, he has changed the office of the president in many ways.
He raised the bar on how we measure the occupants of Rashtrapati Bhavan and set standards that are already proving difficult to follow. One of the reasons why there was so much dirt dished out on Pratibha Patil was because she was foisted on the nation to somewhat prematurely end Kalam’s stint, which could have lasted five more years.
Just compare Kalam and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. To begin with, both of them were quite apolitical, having landed in high offices due to the largesse of political bosses. They both are highly accomplished in their respective fields, mild mannered, belong to religious minorities and come from very humble backgrounds.
Although their integrity is unquestioned, Kalam, after five years of presidency, has emerged as a statesman, while Singh has diminished in stature thanks to his own party’s behaviour and his lack of a political compass.
That Kalam became president in the first place has a lot to do with him being a Muslim, allowing the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government to try and paper over the scars of communal violence in Gujarat. To his credit, Kalam did nothing in office to remind us of his religion.
Yet, our political parties continue to use religion as a means to an end when it comes to high offices. The choice of three Muslim candidates by all three political fronts for India’s next vice-president is nothing more than a cynical ploy to try and claim ‘friend of Muslims’ status, which they think will come in handy come national elections.
One hopes that Muslims will see through this for what it is—tokenism. After all, if a Muslim president didn’t do anything particularly special, there is little reason for them to believe that a Muslim vicepresident will. Beyond that is tokenism.
But, if the assessment of our political parties is that such tokenism can indeed sway voters and swing elections, then why not take an even bolder step: project Kalam—obviously a widely accepted Muslim—as their next prime minister?
Given his undiminished appeal even as he left office—indeed, some could say enhanced appeal—would any front, especially the National Democratic Alliance or the fledgling Third Front—have the courage to project Kalam as its prime ministerial candidate in 2009?
True, it seems far-fetched, but both fronts were willing to back him for a second term, even if their ultimate goal was less about Kalam and more about up-ending Congress party’s plans. Meanwhile, an outright victory for any of the three fronts appears remote as of now so, a “Kalam as prime minister” campaign could become a wild card for the electoral prospects of one of the fronts.
Kalam as a prime ministerial candidate will be a big draw among large sections of the middle classes, given his stature, and his track record of not playing the Muslim card. Of course, in many key battles, Muslims will also flock to his party in droves as they will be behind the idea of the first Muslim prime minister of an independent India.
In my own reckoning, Kalam might be able to add any where upward of 5% in votes, which could translate into an additional 60 to 75 seats provided the front has a strong base vote.
The prospect of Kalam as a potential prime ministerial candidate will send shivers down the spine of the Congress-led UPA, which will suffer the most from the flight of the Muslim vote, a bank that has traditionally sided with the ruling party especially in states where the BJP or NDA are the principal political rivals.
Even the Left parties might be in for a jolt if local opposition leaders, such as West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee, who strongly advocated a second term for Kalam, ends up in that front and erodes the Left votes.
Politics aside, Kalam’s single-minded obsession with wanting to see India as a developed nation marks him out as a different leader. Whatever his other shortcomings, and he isn’t without them, Kalam comes out on top on this score.
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of Development & Research Services, a research and consulting firm in New Delhi. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org