Josy Joseph in New Delhi
It looked and sounded more like a stern, but affable schoolmaster lecturing his students, than the first press conference of someone about to ascend the highest office in the country.
Seasoned reporters used to snappy sound bytes and controversial comments were left floundering by presidential nominee A P J Abdul Kalam's disarming replies to even the most pointed of questions.
Union Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pramod Mahajan was frank when he admitted that if he, or any other Indian politician, were to give such answers during a press conference, reporters would have boycotted them.
"Kalam enjoys such an apolitical, scientific stature that his comments wouldn't hurt anyone and people took it sportingly," Mahajan said.
In fact, Kalam's answers had the assembled journalists in splits. It was hard not to see the humour, if one were to talk about elementary education when questioned about the Ayodhya issue, or get into the mechanics of GDP growth on a query about the Gujarat carnage.
Mahajan was spot on about the boycott part.
But Kalam still got away with it, not because of any verbal wizardry, but in the absence of it.
His disarming candour and an almost fanatic rigour to avoiding anything remotely controversial left both the missile man and the reporters still smiling at the end of it all.
What was buried amid his simplistic replies were sharp messages for Indian political class, if one were to attach the desired depth to the renowned scientist's replies.
Kalam succinctly put across the need for having an educated political class, with 'compassion' as the cornerstone of political decision-making (including on Ayodhya and Gujarat).
He also made it clear that he would retain his simplicity amidst the pomp and glory of Rashtrapati Bhawan, and remain a brahmachari -- problems of protocol in the absence of a First Lady notwithstanding.
The press conference started in what is quickly being dubbed as typical 'Kalam style'.
"Smile, smile doesn't cost you anything, it is a beautiful day," a broadly beaming Kalam told reporters, after panning the entire hall.
That set the stage for the professor, who was 'till yesterday' a part of the faculty at Anna University in Chennai.
Initially, he conducted the press conference by his own rules. He wanted reporters to ask several questions, which were noted down by him and answered at a go.
But as the pace of the conference picked up, Kalam forgot rules that he had laid out. "I am not good at remembering things," Kalam quipped when a reporter pointed out his forgetfulness.
When another reporter told him that in mid-April he had ruled out contesting for President's post, Kalam with a disarming smile said, "I don't remember what I said."
When asked about Gujarat carnage and his views on the alleged culpability of the Narendra Modi government, Kalam said 'I haven't thought about it', but admitted later 'it was very painful'.
As he continued on Gujarat, Kalam conveyed his first crucial message to the Indian political class that he would try and inculcate 'compassion' in them.
When his qualification as the creator of India's mass destructive weapons was pointed out and his opponent Colonel Laxmi Sehgal's reported comment that it 'sends a wrong signal to the world', Kalam shot back whether 'India should have done tapas (meditation) when its neighbours were developing weapons'.
When a reporter dubbed him the father of India's nuclear bomb, he interrupted, "No, no. There are several fathers."
Kalam was always known as the team man, and his reply gave yet another indication of it.
When his stand on the Ayodhya issue was asked, he said, "I think there are three things."
For an eager crowd waiting to lap up comments on shilanyas, VHP, Bajrang Dal et al, the answers came as a damp squib.
Education, economic development and respect for human beings were Kalam's magic solution to the issue.
His answers to the questions on the Gujarat carnage were also similar.
For hard-nosed journalists, used to short term strategies, crisp and straight-on-the-face answers, Kalam's lectures about the need to educate people and improve the economy to end violence were alien.
However, in between his vague replies, Kalam slipped in a few suggestions about how he plans to conduct himself atop the glorious Raisina Hill.
On any controversial issue he would consult country's leading constitutional experts. Decision on issues such as President's Rule in states would be decided based on 'what people needed, rather than what a few people want'.
Enough hints of a balanced presidentship?
Too tough a call to make.
The 11th President of India: Complete Coverage
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