July 24, 2002


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The Rediff Interview/Y Sundara Rajan

'I don't know why people say Dr Kalam is reckless'

Yagnaswami Sundara Rajan, executive director of the government's Technology Information, Forecasting and Assessment Council, is better known as President-elect A P J Abdul Kalam's confidant. He was scientific secretary to Kalam till recently, when the latter was principal scientific adviser to the government.

The two, who share several common interests, have co-authored a book (India 2020 -- A Vision for the New Millennium) and even sport similar hairstyles.

In an interview with Josy Joseph, Rajan spoke of Kalam's new role as President, defended his mentor and friend, and yes, discussed their hairstyles. Excerpts:

Will Kalam bring in something different to the office of President? Or will he just bide his time like most of our Presidents?

I would not like to compare any of the Presidents of our country. We have had very illustrious people. Each one has brought different facets to the office. The interesting part about Dr Kalam is that he has a different background. I am not just talking about his humble origins, but science, technology, looking at them from a different form, while holding various offices in the Government of India.

Yes, he was not active politically. That even one or two earlier Presidents were not. His knowledge of science and technology in some areas will be helpful. Of course, Presidents can always get the best advice in constitutional matters, science and technology, or arts.

He is really a good human being. And all his life he has radiated enthusiasm all over. That is his track record since I have known him from 1965. Whether in DRDO [Defence Research and Development Organisation], ISRO [Indian Space Research Organisation] or TIFAC. At TIFAC, where we have worked together, we opened up into a lot of factors. His ability to keep that enthusiasm and to learn new things are characteristics that I have seen in him.

Rashtrapati Bhavan is behind some sort of an iron curtain, too much of formality, ritual, etc. Will Kalam break free from it all and make the presidency more people-oriented?

If you look at all other presidents, and in some sense India's cultural or civilisational heritage, there has always been continuity with change. And each human being brings his or her persona into the system. Dr Kalam is quite healthy and active. He would be bringing his own touch. But there are things that are constitutionally mandated, certain conventions. You can see them sometimes as constraints and sometimes as healthy. Each one will innovate, and I am sure "continuity with change" will be his style.

One of the most wonderful things about him is that Kalam has been quite unconventional. In remote villages of Bihar and other states, he has visited schools inspiring children. He has at least symbolically been trying to motivate, mobilise and inspire Indians. How is he going to continue with that?

I don't know how exactly he will do it. But that is very close to his heart. I have seen that it is in the youth of India that he has got a lot of faith. I have been with him to a lot of places. There is something in him that triggers the fancy of the younger generation. Even the very ordinary Indians, teachers, traders, etc, would come for his autographs. This I have seen even before he got the Bharat Ratna. For some six-seven years, everywhere you went it used to be that. Maybe Agni-related things have triggered the fame, and later the Bharat Ratna. Then the India 2020 vision.

We went to a Kendriya Vidyalaya in Trivandrum, and they had put up a dais for him. But he said, "No, no. I want to sit there," pointing to the middle of the assembly. He was interacting with them, sitting in their midst. If he will be able to do it in that physical form, I don't know. But I am sure that he will find out some method for keeping in touch with the children. One of the things is creating a long-term vision, and that has to be ceded at a very young age. Not that older people like me cannot do it. But this is one area where he has to keep up the optimism. He believes that 10-12 is an age where you can capture the imagination.

A recent cartoon exhibition in New Delhi had a cartoon on Kalam in Rashtrapati Bhavan, showing him in the Mughal Gardens surrounded by missiles that have replaced plants and flowers. Is he going to symbolize India's macho dreams as the President?

The cartoon could have been done in good humour because I also do poetry and satire sometimes. Sometimes satire is a good thing to depict something.

Sometimes people tend to look at only the minor aspects of his life. What are the biggest achievements of his life? SLV-3, missiles, maybe TIFAC. People only look at these, but there are other aspects to him. He walks daily, the amount of time he spends with nature is so much. At the RCI [Research Centre Imarat, Hyderabad], the number of trees he has planted is like nobody's business. The centre is now so green, so many flowers. Like that he has done quite a bit.

Once a young lady asked me, "Is he a recluse?" Just because he is not married, and prefers to stay in a small guesthouse, he doesn't become a recluse. It doesn't mean that he doesn't enjoy nature. Even his poetic mind comes from nature.

The rocket is a part of his duty. The rocket has an important role. SLV-3 had an important role. Hard-core technology also has an important role. Then comes the other softer aspects of his life, and you see that technology is deployed for removing pain, diseases, poverty. You may not find the excitement of robotics there. This is another excitement, to deploy technology to remove pain, provide people utilities in Bihar, etc. If you ask what is the great discovery in it, there is none. But known facts of science are put together to improve the lives of people.

Similarly, if one goes a step further, there are other softer aspects of life, literature, music, etc. It is not that he is reading all the time how to make rockets. What I would say is to understand one human being it cannot be from one or two sentences or one or two days' interview. Three days of stay with him wouldn't give you that. I have no doubt that he is a very well-rounded personality. He is not just a very good human being, but a very well-rounded human being.

What would be the attempt of friends like you now that he is becoming President? The candidate opposing him harped on the fact that he is the father of India's missile programme. The world also seems to perceive him thus. Are you people going to try and change that view? Maybe try and project Kalam as a softer, sweeter, romantic person who plays the veena?

First and foremost, I sincerely believe that the democracy we have assures freedom of expression. And that in turn entails freedom of opinion. It is not necessary that I tell everybody that look, he is like this. Some people see something and form an opinion. Maybe we can academically discuss how one forms opinions, but everyone has the right to form an opinion. So, at the same time, when people ask me, I tell facts as they are, I try to tell them what I know. But still if somebody says "all that might be there, but still I think otherwise", then it is okay. Sometimes people ask questions the way you asked, and try to understand. This will come about.

Finally, a thing about any human being in a democracy would be a like a kaleidoscope. You could say, "okay, height is six feet, that is good," but you could also say "oh, six feet is too much."

We all finally need to communicate. Finally, majority of the informed opinion comes around. There is a compulsion to write in the initial flush of things. Afterwards, a calm will descend, which will be better. The good thing is that he has expressed himself in his books. There are three books. Wings of Fire is breaking all records in sales. Even India 2020, which we have written together, conveys what he expects of people. It is not a passionate plea, but a studied opinion. And the latest one, Igniting Minds. He is a good communicator. I think even subsequently there will be some form of communication between him and the people. He will be meeting many more people.

Some of his worst critics point out that Kalam's scientific achievements are nothing great. DRDO has been a huge disaster that has drained precious public money. Kalam has not been responsive about these massive losses.

In our country we have developed, I don't know what it can be called, if it is a deliberate act, or what. Word Science has been misused by governments, officials, media, administrators, everybody. I dwell on it in my book, Empowering Indians. Science is a big profession. When Nehru said science, he looked at a very broad definition, including applications. When people come to operational, it comes to physics, biology, chemistry, and then it comes to basic research, and then fundamental research. Then they ask, has he done the C V Raman effect?

That is not the correct way of looking at science. Suppose all the money of the government is put into basic research alone -- I am a strong believer in basic research -- but then in society it won't be complete. At the world level, 15-20 per cent goes for basic research, rest of it is for hard-core actual work.

Where he was operating was one of the most crucial areas India needs in technology and development. He didn't say he is doing scientific research. The word has generally been used for everybody. [Vikram] Sarabhai was called a scientist, [but] a bulk of what he did was technology development. In technology development, at some level you become a leader, you do the management of multiple teams. It is not ordinary administration or some co-ordination.

These are the circular aspects that are not understood. It is necessary for people to understand [that] if you want the so-called scientific and technological knowledge to plough into society in terms of economy or social development, it has to flow through the abilities of people who can deliver technologies to actual systems. And be able to manage multiple systems. In these two parts, Dr Kalam is par excellence compared to any international standards. You want clean air, then do you just say that if the following thermodynamic equations are obtained you get clean air? No, you need to build the system.

I have not been involved with the DRDO. But I can say one has to see the timeframe, there are long gestation periods. Organisations have their social aspects. I would not claim not only for him, I have got some great mentors. Judge them as human beings, there will be some mistakes. Sometimes we want everything to be right. A Tendulkar cannot be hitting sixers all the time. Then he cannot be a cricketer, he would be God.

There may be some people who want to see everything dark. You can do nothing. Also, changes always take time, some of the changes may not be just within the organisation, but depend on the external environment which you may not be able to change. Then things may not be easy.

There is a fear that this great middle-class hero might be caught up in the pressures of politics, and the real Kalam might lose his charm as President. He is otherwise known for his casual remarks, informality and sometimes seen to be so frank, almost reckless, in his comments. But his recent comments on Gujarat have left a sarcastic smile on many a lip.

I don't know when people say Kalam is reckless how correct they are. I have not seen such a Kalam. Over all, he has been responsible for running a system, and he is a very communicative person. We always have some media strategy. Nobody sits in the open completely and bathes. We won't disclose everything. He is not a person for rash comments. None of what he says becomes something that sticks out.

On Gujarat, he said it was painful. There are things in which one has to make a comment. While making a particular statement, one has to study all aspects.

You have been accompanying him throughout his recent travels. What is the reaction of the political class to his presidency?

One day, we were travelling in the North after his nomination. Some young MPs came up to him and they were so warm. All across party lines, he gets a very warm response.

Some in the military believe that Kalam as commander-in-chief will push for more indigenous products for the military that will ultimately delay military modernisation. For example, even if the President hints that he desires that the air force wait for the Light Combat Aircraft and not go in for next generation fighters it would have a tremendous impact on the decision-making.

The President of India has so many things. Him being the commander-in-chief is one part. He is the upholder of the Constitution of India. He has to worry about Parliament, he has to worry about legislature, he has to worry about so many things. Then in addition the whole question of the country, aspirations of the people, meeting artists, etc. I don't think a person of his calibre would get into such things, trying to push this and that.

I hope at least people haven't told you that because he was an aerodynamics man he pushed aerodynamics. I think the office is so macro, so varied, and he is a broadminded human being.

You and Kalam sport similar hairstyles. Is it on purpose?

Let me assure you, my locks are natural. In fact, recently we were in Mahendragiri, 50km north of Kanyakumari. There is so much wind. We were there walking through that severe wind. So I told our director there that at least it is now confirmed that both of us wear no wigs. Somewhere God has given both of us similar hair, we didn't plan it together. So that question should be addressed to God.

When we met in the '60s in Thumba he had cropped hair. In 1968-69, I also had very short hair, every 21 days I used to go for haircuts. Even Dr Kalam had a similar crop, short hair.

I went out for ISRO-MIT study to the US in the early 1970s. In the US and the rest of the world that was the period when long hair was common. It is around that time that Dr Kalam also may have started growing similar hair.

No, I did not inspire Dr Kalam, nor did he inspire me. Both of us have locks on the sides and wavy hair. And by God's grace, both of us do not have receding hair. Somebody the other day asked me, why are you both keeping such long hair, why don't you remove it? I told him, for heaven's sake I am over 58 and he is around 70. If God has given both of us such good hair, let us keep it. How many of us have such strong hair at such an age? Everybody does not need utilitarian reasons for everything.

To befit the new office is Kalam planning to cut his hair now?

No, no. I don't think he is planning to cut his hair. I don't think the length of the hair is prescribed.

Is he going to improve his dressing, now that he has to host formal dinners and luncheons as head of state?

You must see him when he is in a formal dress. He has quite a few formal dresses, and when he is in formal dress he is neatly dressed.

There are several occasions when a first lady is a necessity. Being a bachelor, what is Kalam planning to do? Is he going to nominate any of his relatives as first lady?

These are all personal decisions that he will take in due course of time.

And what is the chance of you moving to Raisina Hill as his secretary?

Again, these are all personal questions that only Dr Kalam can respond to.

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