As an author A.P.J. Abdul Kalam is lucky. Only he can get away with the “Dear reader” tone and child-like style of writing and still sell a million copies. It must be his never-say-die optimism and the innocence he carries on his sleeves that make him the most popular President ever.
But don't underestimate him. He knows where to be tough and where to act like a politician. These aspects of his persona are usually hidden behind his perennial smile. But a lifetime spent hobnobbing with Indian politicians, the wiliest in the business, has taught him a trick or two.
His latest, Turning Points, came out at a time when nominations for the presidential election were up in the air with Kalam's name prominently figuring in them. Mamata Bannerji and Mulayam Singh Yadav proposing Kalam's name (along with Somath Chatterji's and Manmohan Singh's) to Sonia Gandhi was one of the factors that forced Sonia to formally announce Pranab Mukherji's choice as the Congress candidate. It was known that Sonia did not want Pranab to be President because he had a tendency to be independent.
The politicking over the presidential candidates had revived memories of Sonia Gandhi's widely believed ill-will for Kalam. From the time Sonia opted out of the prime ministership following the 2004 election, there were reports that she had turned resentful of Kalam. Some reports mentioned that Kalam had advised her that her foreign origin might create problems for her becoming Prime Minister. No confirmation of this came from any side, but the story of Sonia falling out with Kalam had gained enough ground for the American embassy in Delhi to report it to Washington as WikiLeaks revealed.
Since it was publicised that Turning Points would deal with the non-appointment of Sonia Gandhi, there was considerable interest in the book. But those expect any information on the controversial topic will be disappointed. For one thing, Kalam reaches the topic leisurely, on the 134th page of a 176-page book. Twelve chapters test the reader's patience, with Kalam talking about his lectures, his talks with children, his suggestions on governance, his poems, his list of good deeds, his visits abroad, his improvements to the Mughal Gardens, the virtues of medicinal plants, rejuvenating the heart of India, etcetera.
Finally he came to “the three situations” that engaged his personal feelings. Actually he listed four. The first was the cabinet decision to dissolve the Bihar Assembly, a crisis that almost made him resign. The second was the Office of Profits Bill which he returned for reconsideration. The third was capital punishment cases on which he found many unfair assumptions. And the fourth – at last – was inviting the Congress to form the Government in 2004.
Kalam writes on the subject without saying anything. He merely says that he was ready to appoint Sonia Gandhi as Prime Minister and that, to his surprise, she put up Manmohan Singh for the job. So what about all the circumstantial evidence supporting Sonia's hostility to Kalam, what about the Congress cold-shouldering him, what about those American diplomatic cables? Not a word. In fact his account is so cheerful, about pleasantries being exchanged and so on, that we would think the two were buddies. This is Kalam the politician at his best.
Readers of the book have to be satisfied with the few points he makes elsewhere with firmness. When politics degrades into adventurism, he says, ruination would follow. We must graduate from political politics to developmental politics, he says. He also criticises Parliament for not debating seriously practices that cannot meet the standards of public probity.
In the course of all this, Kalam gives unstinted praise to P.V. Narasimha Rao. “I found Rao very perceptive on defence issues.... He had a long-term vision of building robust systems of defence application”. This is about a man who is a non-person in Sonia Gandhi's book and is denied mention in official Congress records. So now we can guess at least one reason for Sonia's dislike of Kalam.