Saturday, August 1, 2015

Dr A P J Abdul Kalam (1931-2015): President without Precedent

Dr A P J Abdul Kalam, Former President of India breathed his last on July 27, 2015 doing what he always liked the best – sharing his thoughts with students; one last time, this time with the students of Indian Institute of Management, Shillong. Spontaneous and innumerable tributes have poured in from all parts of India cutting across generations, professions, religions, cultures and communities. The universal respect and affection Dr Kalam commanded from the vast millions of India has few comparisons in modern India. He had many firsts to his credit from being the driving force for a number of civilian space and military missile technologies to being the first people’s President and an ordinary Indian extraordinaire! The most glowing and compelling tribute to the legacy of Dr Abdul Kalam has been penned by our Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and is a must-read for everyone (

Dr Kalam was an amazing combination of many versatile parts; a self-made technocrat who developed himself from very humble beginnings, a brilliant leader of science who launched (literally!) many space and missile projects, a passionate believer in the development of indigenous science and technology, a connoisseur of art and music – an ardent fan of M S Subbulaksmi and a consummate player of Veena, a selfless man who entrusted all his savings to a trust, PURU, an inspirational icon for youth, a visionary and dreamer with practical solutions for the planet’s issues, an enthralling coach and mentor for students and researchers, a bundle of joy and happiness with children, a humanist who never allowed himself to be distanced from people,  a true secularist proficient in his Islamic religion as well as Hindu scriptures, a thoughtful writer with an impressive fusion of knowledge, ideation and execution, a builder of institutions and a renaissance leader in all senses of the term. It is this unique combination of multiple parts that makes Dr Abdul Kalam a truly differentiated leader.

There are a few inspirational thoughts that flow from an observation of the life and works of Dr Kalam which must be guide posts for all truly indigenous leaders.    

Indigenous, Ingenious

In an era where international education, higher degrees and global stints are seen as hallmarks of superiority, Dr Kalam epitomizes the quintessential Indian spirit that could shape a genius from the poor village roots of Rameshwaram through our own MIT (Madras Institute Technology) with an engineering degree and through our own public sector research laboratories (DRDL/DRDO and ISRO) to lead some of the most prestigious defence technology projects for India. As Dr Kalam gratefully acknowledges, his interest in education has been kindled by relatives and friends who motivated him to study, school teachers who inspired him to excel and educational institutions which provided the necessary foundations. His education and career had been shaped and influenced by some of the best professors and best space and defence scientists who believed in the development of indigenous science and technology.

Satellite projects such as Rohini, missile projects such as Prithvi, Akash, Trishul, Nag and Agni and nuclear projects such as Pokhran as well as developmental projects such as carbon-carbon and fibre-reinforced plastic, phase shifters, magnesium alloys, motors and servo-valves for missiles as well as novel stents and tablets characterize his indigenous scientific accomplishments. Ingenuity in indigenous development is the genius that India needs to inspire the millions of young students, scientists and technologists. As Dr Kalam’s life illustrates, India’s leaders would need to judge professionalism and accomplishments not from the international degrees one sports, the multinational corporate stints one does or even from the felicity with which one speaks or writes but essentially from the demonstrated ability to solve India’s developmental challenges and fulfil India’s economic aspirations with indigenous thought processes and talent pools. 

Igniting minds

Having understood with perseverance and experience what an inspired and ignited mind could do, Dr Kalam applied himself to dreamy ideas, visionary thoughts, rousing plans and earthy solutions. As the missile man and space scientist, Dr Kalam understood well the power of fire and the joy of flying. He was a prolific writer of books, with India 2020 (1998), Wings of Fire (1999), Ignited Minds (2002), Guiding Souls (2005), The Family and The Nation (2008), The Scientific Indian (2010), Target 3 Billion (2011), Turning Points (2012), My Journey (2013), Beyond 2020 (2014) and several other prosaic and poetic publications becoming living examples of his passion to communicate and share. Connected all though his books has been an appreciation of India’s immense potential and what India’s mind power and youth power could achieve if channelled rightly. Many unique concepts that are both spiritual and scientific resonate in different forms and contexts in one sublime fusion through the many books of his.

In Wings of Fire he focuses on knowledge as a spiritual journey of connecting with one’s own hidden knowledge, organizing his earthy mystique of thought in the four chapters of Orientation, Creation, Propitiation and Contemplation. In Ignited Minds he seeks to focus on dreams and visions, role models, visionary teachers and scientists, saints and seers, patriotism, knowledge and collaboration as the factors to build a new State. His work on Vision 2020 points out how as Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai and Jawaharlal Nehru dreamed in the 1960s and eventually succeeded in their nuclear mission for peaceful purposes, and postulates why and how the nation and its leaders and its people must continue to dream and execute. The book lays out a thoughtful vision for India. Kalam’s spirit of scientific quest combined with his zest of a seer’s spirituality make an eclectic   combination that is worthy of emulation by leaders who are focused only on material transactions and performance metrics.

Teaching to reach

As is widely known, Kalam’s first love has been teaching and natural constituency has been  Young India, led by students and children. Here again, his personal integrity and unbounded optimism resonated instantly with the students. With the exception of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, no other leader has been able to connect with students and children as Dr Kalam has done. Simplicity rather than pomposity, empathy rather than superiority and intellect rather than dialect were his differentiators. His affinity to native thinkers and his propensity to mingle with his listeners helped him reach out to his students in a more indelible fashion than any typical teacher or professor could. As a researcher who actually delivered huge indigenous innovations, he came across as a creative teacher who posed not only challenging questions and laid out dreamy visions but also provided practical solutions.

Dr Kalam’s penchant for teaching can be best described only in his words. In an interview with The Hindu (, Dr Kalam said: “If the people remember me as a good teacher that will be the biggest honour for me”. He went on to say: “Teaching is a very noble profession that shapes the character, calibre and future of an individual…youth have a dream and also they have a pain. The pain comes out of their dream; they want to live in a prosperous, happy and peaceful India. This type of student’s environment ignites me and leads me to interact with young minds”. His teaching was not confined to only to students; it enveloped all of his scientists and colleagues. The innumerable recounts of his colleagues testify to his dedication to on-the-job teaching. Dr Kalam’ life illustrates to us that persons in authority can touch the hearts and shape the minds of their team members only when they view themselves as teachers and coaches and not as managers and leaders.  

Soaring higher

In Dr Kalam one would always find an ardour for values and principles to improve quality of thought and life. He wrote in Wings of Fire: “Every child is born with some inherited characteristics, into a specific socio-economic and emotional environment, and trained in certain ways by figures of authority”. He goes on to write in his Wings of Fire how his father and mother with great family values, unschooled brothers with sharp native wisdom, his close friends from highly orthodox Hindu Bramhin families with secular bonding, and his Bramhin science teacher with great faith in his capabilities together shaped the positivity and creativity in his early life and enabled him to soar high. Probably all this made him more committed to be with children and inspire them constantly, almost as an essential call of duty.

His message to young people has been to have courage to think differently, courage to invent, courage to travel the unexplored path, courage to discover the impossible and to conquer the problems and succeed. He was a firm believer in dreams, for he believed that dreams transform into thoughts and thoughts transform into actions. He was, all through his life, a leader who never chastised people for their mistakes but instead motivated them to learn from them for success. Unfortunately, however, most organizations and leaders are anti-theses of the principles of creativity and innovation. Leaders must focus on how they can bring out the potential by enabling them to think differently and creatively. A leader who encourages each of his team members to soar higher would be doing a yeoman service not only to the individual but to the organization and the society in the overall. 

NIP in expression

Dr Kalam may not have been a great orator as the term is popularly known. Yet, people, young and old, alike flocked to listen to him. His speeches had a characteristic nip, of a genuine Nationalist, a committed Integrator and a fervent Patriot. His addresses at events were simple but powerful expositions of the need to innovate for national good. Thanks to the passionate grit of K Raghavendra Rao, the Founder-CEO of Orchid Chemicals & Pharmaceuticals to have Dr Kalam inaugurate the new state-of-the-art sterile penicillin injectable medicines facility, Dr Kalam graced Orchid’s modern antibiotics complex in Sriperumbudur (near Chennai) in December 2005, inaugurated the facility and addressed the employees and other stakeholders. Dr Kalam, true to his self, went through the facility diligently and interacted with staff and management patiently. He applauded the modern technology that was deployed therein and exorted the scientists to integrate multiple technologies to discover and bring to market our own new drugs as a matter of national responsibility and national pride for India (a passion Orchid still stands for).  

Our former Statesman-Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee (who was instrumental in bringing Kalam as the President in 2002) wrote a preface to Kalam’s collection of poems titled The Life Tree (2003) wherein he stated that the confluence of scientific brilliance and poetic talent in Abdul Kalam was unique. He found the feelings of patriotism, love and faith that fill his expressions to be heartfelt. As the people of India, as individuals and leaders, work tirelessly in their professions they must, like Kalam, reflect and introspect on the larger purpose of life – a purpose that could make India a truly better place to live, and India a truly respected nation globally. As Kalam’s many accomplishments demonstrate these objectives are fulfilled only when Indians and India notch up tangible indigenous breakthroughs based on self-reliant scientific and technological development.


Despite all his mighty accomplishments and august office, Dr Kalam never let the trappings of scientific accomplishments and presidential office cloud his humble origins or erode his endearing demeanour. The Hindu in its Melange supplement today featured an article with a rhetorical and pertinent question “What made Kalam so beloved to ordinary people?”, which is another evocative read (  The article logically argued that it was because Dr Kalam personified hope backed by achievement that he was connected so universally with his people. The article also hypothesized that most Indians still have an idealistic streak that might yet be the making of us. The article concludes that it is this core that Kalam touched. The author of this blog post believes that Kalam has become a phenomenon of modern India because he never allowed himself to be insulated from others.

Leaders, indeed, have a great deal to learn from Kalam not only in terms of institutional building and developmental transformation but more in terms of the fundamental leadership responsibility of staying connected with people in a genuinely humble, simple and humane manner. As one climbs the ladder of successive accomplishments, the ground seems to get ever farther for most leaders! Economic accomplishment and social recognition on one hand and organizational structures and processes on the other make  leaders insulate themselves from the people and the ecosystems from which they originated. Leaders must learn to constantly de-insulate themselves in a thoughtful and constructive manner. Dr A P J Kalam became spontaneously loved because he interacted ceaselessly with people from all walks of life; his mighty achievements were secondary to him while his vision for an India of his dreams was primary for him. India will miss him!

Posted by Dr CB Rao on August 1, 2015

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