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Rocket Man Poised to Shoot to Presidency

India: Election of A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, father of nuclear program and a Muslim, would signal armed might as well as respect for minorities.


NEW DELHI — Choosing a president is India's way of putting its best face forward, and the likely election of a national hero known as the Missile Man sends a message to the world.

India's Parliament and state assemblies are expected to vote on the largely ceremonial post in mid-July, and the power brokers appear to have settled on their candidate: A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, 71, the father of India's nuclear missile program.

He also happens to be a Muslim, like most of the people in neighboring Pakistan--India's main nuclear rival--and like thousands of Indians driven from their homes by Hindu mobs during weeks of unrest in the western state of Gujarat.

Kalam's surprise nomination by both the ruling coalition and the opposition is meant to say that India respects its minorities--and is a nuclear power that shouldn't be toyed with, political observers say. It may also be a political masterstroke for a Hindu nationalist government that needs the kind of popularity boost that a rocket scientist can deliver.

Last month, when war with Pakistan seemed close and the threat of nuclear strikes loomed large, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was struggling to find a replacement for incumbent President Kocheril Raman Narayanan.

Narayanan, a favorite of the opposition Congress Party, rose from the poverty and discrimination that have cursed low-caste Dalits for centuries. He studied at the London School of Economics and served as India's ambassador to several countries, including the U.S. and China, before being elected president in 1997.

Narayanan is following tradition and stepping down after one term in office. A disappointed Vice President Krishnan Kant is accepting that Vajpayee won't allow him to follow tradition and succeed Narayanan.

That leaves Kalam with little competition, especially since Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi joined Vajpayee in nominating Kalam for president.

The quirky bachelor, respected as much for his humility as his unabashed faith in nationalism and nuclear deterrence, is a living symbol of the country's new sense of power and pride. He also is the attack-proof candidate Vajpayee sent his strategists looking for.

Only India's raucous left wing is trying to deny Kalam the presidency, although its candidate, Lakshmi Sehgal, 87, has been quick to point out that she admires the nuclear scientist and has nothing against him personally.

But having Kalam, the brains behind India's nuclear weapons program, as head of state "is sending a wrong signal at a time when the India-Pakistan border is tense," she told reporters recently.

Sehgal knows a thing or two about war herself. She was a brigade commander in the rebel Indian National Army that fought British rule in the 1940s and says she is now fighting a political battle to preserve a fragile Indian unity and women's rights.

Although India's presidents usually are far removed from day-to-day governing, the splintering of the country's politics often leaves disputes for them to resolve.

If, as expected, no single party wins a majority in the next scheduled national legislative elections, in 2004, it could fall to Kalam to decide which of the leading parties should be allowed to try to form a government in Parliament, where the prime minister is chosen not by direct, popular vote, but according to how many seats his party or coalition loyalists control.

Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party, which isn't likely to win a majority of seats at the polls, may be betting that Kalam will return the favor of his elevation to the presidency by giving the BJP first crack at forming a government, even if the Hindu nationalist party and its allies don't win a convincing electoral victory.

Kalam has no political experience, which makes him attractive both to the politicians who may hope to manipulate him and to the millions of Indians who are fed up with the corrupt, and often inept, political establishment.

The Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh movement, or RSS, normally doesn't have many kind words for India's Muslim minority, but it is overjoyed by the nuclear cachet that Kalam would bring to the presidency.

"We are not concerned about his religion at all," said Seshadri Chari, editor of the movement's newspaper, the Organizer. "He is a good Indian, an ideal Indian."

Chari, whose organization often questions the patriotism of India's roughly 140 million Muslims, said he considers Kalam "a good Muslim, and we want all Indian Muslims to emulate him."

"He has a vision of a great India, a powerful India, and we share that vision," the editor added.

Chari is such a fan of Kalam that he tracked down a speech the scientist gave six months ago and printed it in a recent edition of the Organizer.

It quoted Kalam praising Israel, a close military ally of India, for having news media that he said were much more positive than India's and more willing to trumpet their nation's achievements.

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