Former president Dr Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen (APJ) Abdul Kalam died as he lived: in the public eye and inspiring young students. The 83-year-old collapsed of a cardiac arrest on Monday while giving a lecture on sustainable development at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) in Shillong.
A rocket scientist who rose to become India’s 11th president, he will be remembered most for being the people’s President, an inspirational figure who revolutionised the top office by connecting with the youth and pushing for an innovative new India.
Kalam initially wanted to be a fighter pilot and narrowly missed being selected. He then joined the civilian space programme as a scientist - one of the few chosen by Dr Vikram Sarabhai for training at NASA in sounding rockets.
But when Kalam returned to Thumba in 1964, he had little to fall back on. He even converted a cattle shed on the coast into a laboratory to work on rockets.
Kalam was later instrumental in laying the foundation of the rocket launch systems at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) during a nearly two decade stint at ISRO from the late 1960s to 1982.
Known as the ‘Missile Man’, he also played a pivotal technical role in the Pokhran-II nuclear tests in 1998, as chief of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).
He was Prime Minister Vajapyee’s choice for the presidency in 2002, enjoying the support of both the ruling BJP and the opposition Congress party. Kalam was the first occupant of the Rashtrapati Bhawan to connect with the public, particularly the youth, via the internet.
Kalam served as president for one term from 2002 to 2007. As the constitutional head of the nation, he was no pushover – visiting Gujarat after the riots of 2002 even though Vajpayee was reportedly not comfortable with his plans. Under the UPA administration too, Kalam returned the Office of Profit Bill to parliament for reconsideration in 2006 because he did not believe it to be fair or reasonable.
After his term, Kalam returned to a life of education, writing and public service. He received several prestigious awards, including the Bharat Ratna, India's highest civilian honour.
Few of India's presidents have earned the popularity that this vegetarian bachelor enjoyed in office and beyond.