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A Look at India's New President, APJ Abdul Kalam - 2002-07-18

A former top scientist in the Indian government's nuclear and missile program has been elected the country's new president. APJ Abdul Kalam, will occupy a largely ceremonial post, but his epic journey from a tiny fishing village to the country's presidential palace has evoked wide interest in India.

Mr. Kalam began his life in a middle class Muslim family in Rameswaram village in Southern India, far from New Delhi's corridors of power. His father was illiterate and made a living renting boats to fishermen, but he ensured that his son received a college education.

Mr. Kalam chose a career dedicated to building missiles, and rose to be a front-ranking scientist in India's nuclear program. He became widely known as the "missile man."

He was teaching in a university away from the public spotlight when he was was pitched into politics just a few weeks ago.

The reason was unusual. Bickering mainstream political parties could not agree on a consensus candidate for the post from the usual pick of senior politicians, so they turned to Mr. Kalam as their choice for president. A surprised Mr. Kalam accepted the offer.

The nation was equally surprised. Some describe the choice as "odd"; others call it a tribute to the contribution professional Indians have made to the country. Almost all agree that Mr. Kalam, who passionately emphasizes the need for integrity and values, will give the murky world of politics some new color.

After his victory in the presidential election was announced, Mr. Kalam said India needs a "second vision." "India has to be transformed into a developed nation in 20 years time. This [is what] I will work for," he said. "What does it mean? It means a poverty-free nation, a prosperous nation, and a healthy nation with a value system."

Mr. Kalam likes to call himself a true citizen of India. Although a Muslim, he is well versed in Hindu scriptures. He is a bachelor, with a reputation for working tirelessly.

Mr. Kalam says the choice of a missile scientist as president is a symbol of India's desire to use technology for the development of the nation.

In recent weeks, there has been intense media attention on the new president's appearance, more typical of a scientist than a president. Many say his shoulder-length, silver-gray hair; his casual dress and sandals will be at odds with the grandeur of the presidential palace. Others feel it may give it refreshing informality.

Critics also say his lack of political experience could be an impediment in carrying out the job, which sometimes involves sensitive political decisions in an era of fractured electoral verdicts and coalition governments.

But virtually everyone agrees the Indian presidency could be more unpredictable and interesting than it has ever been in the past.

Mr. Kalam, elected by a electoral college of lawmakers, won nearly 90 percent of the vote. He will the country's third Muslim president. Analysts say the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party proposed his name as president to silence criticism that the party is anti-Muslim. He will be sworn in next Wednesday (24 July 2002).