We will miss him - that unconventional figure who became India’s First Citizen in July 2002. Never pompous, not even ‘presidential’ (in either deportment or demeanour), he walked into the Palace at Raisina Hill with few worldly goods - he now leaves with even fewer: “I will go with only two small suitcases,” he wistfully said last Thursday. We could have asked him to stay: but we didn’t.
There were excuses (there always are). It was said that apart from Rajendra Prasad there had been no ‘precedent’ for a second term. But as any lawyer will tell you, if you have a good case in court there is no need for a ‘precedent’; it is the good case that makes the precedent! But all this is in the realm of wishful thinking: as the poet says: “We look before and after and pine for what is not...”
The stark reality is that this lovable figure - popular, sometimes even populist, but never ostentatious - now exits from Rashtrapati Bhavan in the same frame of mind as he entered it: with an overriding concern for the ‘underdog’. Hear this: one year into office, on the morning of July 14, 2003, at 8.40 am, the RAX in the office of the secretary to the president rang. President Kalam was at the other end. “Mr Nair,” he said in a voice that was (as always) cool and composed, “last night I could not sleep because my bedroom was leaking...” P.M. Nair froze and muttered something. “Any other president,” he now recalls, “and my head would have rolled, although for no fault of mine.”
At the other end of the line, the president (sensing Nair’s embarrassment), continued reassuringly, “Don’t worry Mr Nair, I know you will immediately set things right in my bedroom. What I am worried about are those houses on the President’s Estate where they may not have a second bedroom to shift to when the only one that is available leaks.” So Nair got moving, and with the help of the CPWD, the old staff quarters - until then dilapidated and neglected - were transformed into bright new leak-proof houses: in almost record time. Nair tells me that he was greatly impressed at the concern and compassion shown by the president - not for himself but for other inmates on the Presidential Estate. It has been said that no man, however great, is a hero to his own secretary or his own valet. But as with all such sayings there are exceptions - from that point on, Nair had found his hero!
Now another revelation - so far kept under wraps at Rashtrapati Bhavan (under presidential orders): In May 2006, President Kalam’s relatives from the south decided to descend on him (as relatives tend to often do). On instructions of the president they were welcomed by his staff at the railway station, and were looked after right up to the time they departed. But the Controller of Household was under strict instructions to keep a meticulous account of all the expenses incurred on behalf of the relatives - all 53 of them. Not once was an office vehicle used for any of them.
It was made clear by the president that he would pay - not only for the transport of all his relatives to and from Delhi, and also within Delhi, he would also pay for the various rooms occupied by them at Rashtrapati Bhavan and the food that was consumed by them - the rooms at the prescribed rate, the food on the basis of expenses actually incurred.
When his relatives left after a week’s stay, the president was of course sad to see them all go, but he was also lighter in his pocket: the total expenses debited to his personal account was Rs 3,54,924! As we practicing lawyers often say in court “the facts speak for themselves”: President Kalam has set a high benchmark of rectitude in public office - worthy of emulation. And as a living embodiment of ‘Transparency-National’, his parting words of advice were: “Don’t accept gifts.” Delicately put: what he meant to say of course was: “Don’t accept gifts for favours in return.”
Yes, we will all miss him. Me, too. Although I had publicly criticised him for putting his signature on the Bihar Dissolution Proclamation, and for not insisting on a personal meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi during his presidential trip to Myanmar, in retrospect, these were but aberrations - small lapses - in a hugely successful presidency.
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.