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NYTimes.com Article: Nuclear Scientist, 70, a Folk Hero, Is Elected India's President
by alvi_saima
19 July 2002 16:17 UTC
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This article from NYTimes.com 
has been sent to you by alvi_saima@yahoo.com.

Nuclear Scientist, 70, a Folk Hero, Is Elected India's President

July 19, 2002


NEW DELHI, July 18 - An exuberant and eccentric 70-year-old
scientist who is considered the father of India's nuclear
missile program was overwhelmingly elected president today
by legislators. 

The vote for the largely ceremonial office reflected both
the growing disdain of the country for professional
politicians and its ambition to be taken seriously on the
world stage. 

The scientist, A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, a boatman's son who
rose to become a nuclear folk hero in India, emerged as the
surprise candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the
ruling Hindu nationalist party, only a month ago. He won
nearly 90 percent of the votes cast by legislators. 

A best-selling author, he functions as a kind of
nationalist self-help guru who vows to use science,
technology and nuclear and space research to allow India to
develop, assert itself and achieve greatness. 

He has emerged as a cult figure since he helped oversee
India's successful nuclear tests in 1998. His latest book,
"Ignited Minds: Unleashing the Power Within India," blares
his can-do, nationalist message. 

"India has to be transformed into a developed nation," Dr.
Kalam said after being elected today, "a prosperous nation
and a healthy nation, with a value system." 

Dr. Kalam, an ethnic Tamil, will be the third Muslim to
serve as president of Hindu-dominated India. Nominating him
allowed the ruling party to bolster its secular credentials
after being condemned for allowing Hindu extremists to kill
hundreds of Muslims in Gujarat earlier this year. 

But critics question Dr. Kalam's scientific credentials,
say he has never truly fought for Muslim causes and call
him a political novice unprepared for Indian political
combat. Leftists accuse him of nuclear jingoism and
challenge his support for vast high-technology projects,
like an unmanned Indian mission to the moon, which they
contend will waste millions. 

"His scientific ideology is more of society being at the
disposal of science," said Sita Ram Yechury, a spokesman
for the leftist parties opposing Dr. Kalam, "rather than
science being at the disposal of society." 

But such criticism is faint in a country where Dr. Kalam
has become a mythic figure. A bachelor, vegetarian and
amateur musician and poet, Dr. Kalam brings an unorthodox
style to the 340-room presidential palace. Until now, he
has professed to live the life of an ascetic, reading
poetry and strumming the vina, a traditional guitarlike
instrument, in his spare time. His trademark is the long
mop of gray hair that flops down each side of his face. 

Dr. Kalam's best-selling autobiography, "Wings of Fire,"
and a children's book, "Eternal Quest," recount his life
and times. 

Born on Oct. 15, 1931, in Rameswaram, a spit of land that
juts out between Madras and Sri Lanka, he excelled in
school while selling newspapers to support his father. 

The idyllic account of his life that follows features
inspirational verse from the Koran, the Bhagavad-Gita, T.
S. Eliot, Lewis Carroll, Benjamin Franklin, Dr. Kalam
himself and others. 

It describes Muslims and Hindus growing up in harmony, and
teachers and family members helping him get into boarding
school and college. Dr. Kalam went on to study aeronautical
engineering at the prestigious Madras Institute of
Technology. He never received a Ph.D., but he is always
referred to as "doctor" in India, having received 30
honorary doctorates and the country's three highest
civilian honors. 

His only visit to the United States came in 1963, when he
spent about five months touring NASA rocket centers. 

Throughout his career, Dr. Kalam, who declined a request
for an interview, worked tirelessly to ensure that Indian
technology could succeed, according to Dr. K.
Kasturirangan, now the head of India's space program and a
colleague of Dr. Kalam's for 35 years. 

"He is a humble, he lives a spartan life," Dr.
Kasturirangan said, listing the qualities that attract an
Indian public weary of political corruption. "He is deeply
committed to any cause he undertakes in life." 

After working on the team that developed India's first
satellite vehicle in the 1970's, Dr. Kalam ran a program
that developed five missiles to counter Chinese and
Pakistani systems in the 1980's. When the Bharatiya Janata
Party took office in 1998, he served as scientific adviser
to the Ministry of Defense and lobbied for nuclear tests. 

Indian tests that year set off an international outcry and
an arms race with Pakistan. But Dr. Kalam argues that
nuclear weapons are a deterrent that helped prevent another
war between India and Pakistan this spring. 

Dr. Kalam, who takes office July 25, will have limited
power under India's parliamentary system. Expected to serve
as an evenhanded arbiter, the president breaks ties in
Parliament, can call elections and can decide which party
can form a government. 

Dr. Kalam will also have the bully pulpit to argue for
development projects that he says will eliminate poverty in
India by 2020. Groups he helped establish have developed
prosthetic limbs from lightweight materials from the
missile programs. Another distributes information on
weather, crops and genetically altered farm animals to

Opponents may continue to attack him as a yes man for Hindu
nationalists, a proponent of militarism and creator of an
Indian military-industrial complex. But his upbeat message
is likely to continue to drown them out. 

"Nations consist of people," his new book begins. "And with
their effort, a nation can accomplish all it could ever


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