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| Sunday, December 22, 2013 |
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The unlikely Prime Minister

Will Nandan Nilekani emerge as the Congress's prime ministerial candidate in the 2014 parliamentary elections? The jury is still out on that, but old friends tell Prasun Chaudhuri, Varuna Verma, Sonia Sarkar and Reena Martins that though he is not quite a politician, he certainly is a master strategist

They call it a fireside chat. The fire is in the dreams that are being spelled out. Corruption will be tackled. Funds for education and health will be better utlilised. And paying taxes and bills will be so much easier.

"It was a kind of a roadmap for the country's development," says Srikanth Nadhamuni, former head of technology at Aadhaar, the government's ambitious Unique Identification Authority if India (UIDAI) programme. And voicing it all was Nandan Nilekani, in a chat with entrepreneur Vinod Khosla and moderated by Nadhamuni.

The event was held in Delhi in September, when Nilekani was merely known as UIDAI chairman, former CEO of Infosys, a generous philanthropist, and a planner for his hometown, Bangalore. There was no talk then — at least not in public — of Nilekani ever being considered for the top post in the Indian government.

Much water has flown down the Cauvery since then. The Bharatiya Janata Party has named Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 parliamentary polls. The Congress fared dismally in the recent Assembly polls. Rahul Gandhi's meetings were a washout. And a party led by Arvind Kejriwal — whom few had heard of even a couple of years ago — won a surprising number of seats in the Delhi Assembly, on the plank of clean governance.

"People are looking for clean images and doers," Nadhamuni says.

Enter Nandan Mohan Nilekani. There is speculation in the media — and in political circles — that he may emerge as the Congress's prime ministerial candidate in the 2014 polls. Officially nothing has been said, and informally Congressmen scoff at the thought of a "rank outsider" being allowed to lead the party. According to the latest reports, the Congress in Karnataka has shortlisted Nilekani among others for the Bangalore South Lok Sabha seat.

"Nilekani is only an expert in his field. He is a man of ideas but not prime minister material," a senior Congressman says.

But those who have the ear of the party high command believe that Rahul Gandhi favours Nilekani, though they add that Congress president Sonia Gandhi is still to make up her mind. What's clear is that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh — 81, and increasingly losing popularity because of factors such as government corruption and the rate of inflation — is not going to lead the party campaign in 2014.

In some circles, Nilekani is being hailed as a man who could change the face of politics. He has good organisational skills, a clean image and loads of money (according to Forbes magazine, he is worth $1.3 billion).

And he may be willing to take the plunge too. The political grapevine says that he was keen on a Rajya Sabha seat, but is being persuaded by the Congress to stand for the Lok Sabha — one, because of his image, and two, because he has money to spend.

"Being an entrepreneur automatically made me a very long shot in Indian politics, and an easy target for populist rhetoric. I was, I said, quite unelectable," Nilekani wrote in his 2008 book Imagining India: Ideas for the New Century.

But that he has many of the strengths that voters want in their Prime Minister is evident. For one, he has been a successful entrepreneur — he was in the group of seven that set up information technology giant Infosys with N.R. Narayana Murthy.

"As a co-founder, he was one of the key leaders who built the company from nothing to revenue in excess of $3 billion when he stepped down as CEO. The milestone of the first billion-dollar revenue was reached during his tenure," says Kris Gopalakrishnan, executive vice-chairman, Infosys. Gopalakrishnan, who was also in the group of seven, left Patni Computers with Nilekani to start Infosys in 1981.

Nilekani, who was Narayana Murthy's closest aide, became the head of Infosys when the latter stepped down in 2002. He quit as CEO in 2007, but was a co-chairman of the board of directors. In 2009, he left Infosys to join UIDAI.

His image is not just related to his work. He is a generous philanthropist. Earlier this week, he and wife Rohini (who runs a non-government organisation dealing with safe water and sanitation) donated Rs 50 crore to the National Council of Applied Economic Research, the New Delhi-based economic think tank. Earlier, he'd donated Rs 50 crore to the Indian Institute of Human Settlements, a Bangalore institute on urban planning, Nadhamuni says.

Unlike many top industrialists, the Nilekanis don't lead an ostentatious life, friends say, though they live in a sprawling bungalow in an upmarket neighbourhood. "I am too lazy to run a building as complex as Mukesh Ambani's," he told The New Yorker magazine in 2011. "I don't want to stand out too much from the crowd. If the crowd all had planes, then maybe I would have a plane."

Nilekani's main strength is that he is seen as an able organiser. As the head of the UIDAI, he has been dealing with a massive organisation and responsibilities. And while the Aadhaar scheme — under which each citizen gets an identity number — has drawn bitter criticism from government as well as NGO circles, the job, in his own words, is "the mother of all projects".

About 500 million people have already been given their cards and another 100 million are expected to get theirs in 2014. Over 20 million citizens are being enrolled every month under UIDAI. Till September this year, UIDAI had spent Rs 3,496 crore out of its total allocation of Rs 5,469 crore.

Even so, the project, since its inception in 2009, has been kicking up controversies. Critics point out that a similar project, the National Population Register, was already being run by the home ministry. "The ministry vehemently objected to the government spending crores on the project but Nilekani had his way," a retired government secretary says.

Many in the government, in fact, have been critical of Nilekani's way of functioning. "He knows nothing about the way the government functions or how to spend public money," says a senior bureaucrat. "And he never bothered to answer questions at meetings on why he had to spend crores of rupees for a project when the NPR was already in place."

Not surprisingly, not everybody is happy with the talk about Nilekani's political debut. He has no political experience, the critics point out, and no mass appeal either. Some add that he is cut off from ground realities.

"For him, the middle class does not exist," says a former college mate from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. "He wants every Indian to drive a Jaguar." He recalls an occasion when some students were campaigning for permanent jobs to be given to mess workers. "Nilekani opposed the move."

But, then, outsiders face opposition. In the 1980s, Sam Pitroda faced fierce opposition when he was advisor to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. If Nilekani has his share of enemies, he has a legion of friends standing up for him, too.

"We need people like Nandan Nilekani in politics," says historian Ramchandra Guha, who has known him for 40 years — ever since they took part in an inter-college quiz contest. "He is brilliant. He has a good grasp of politics, culture and society, besides technology. He is patriotic, intelligent and committed. Even if he doesn't win, he should remain in public life."

His three best qualities, Rajeev Gowda, Congress national spokesperson in Bangalore, adds are that he is a go-getter, an excellent executor of programmes and honest. "He is a man who can bring change into politics," he says.

Clearly, there are two worlds when it comes to Nilekani. His detractors describe him as overly ambitious; his proponents believe he has a mission. The critics say he rides roughshod over people; his supporters say he gets work done.

  • TASK FORCE: Jairam Ramesh, Sharad Pawar, Pranab Mukherjee and Nandan Nilekani at an Aadhaar meet

Some, uncharitably, imply that he cultivates the powerful, pointing to his ties with Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi.

But those are the people he deals with regularly, his friends point out. And he does so unobtrusively.

Some years ago, for instance, he invited a neighbour over to lunch in Bangalore. The friend — who has little to do with politics — was surprised to find Rahul Gandhi there, happily mixing with the guests.

Then, it's because of his ties with Goa chief minister Manohar Parrikar — they were both in IIT together — that Goa has one of the highest UIDAI enrolment rates in the country, another friend points out.

He is also accused of being pushy. "It's my way or the high way for him," says a critic. Others dismiss this, saying that he's merely persistent. V. Ravichandar, chairman, Feedback Consulting, Bangalore, cites an example. Chief minister S.M. Krishna had set up the Bangalore Agenda Task Forces (BATF) in the 2000s, and Nilekani chaired the one on infrastructure and civic issues. One of the measures that the BATF took was to give the city traffic police access to money collected as fines for traffic violations which earlier went to the state government. "It took 2-3 years for the government to finally pass a resolution saying that 50 per cent of the fines collected would go to the traffic police funds. This year the traffic police collected Rs 60 crore as fines," he says. "If Nandan felt that some idea was good, he went after it with persistence."

Nilekani's involvement with the BATF was his first foray into the public domain. "I always felt Nandan had clarity of vision. He was very clear about certain ideas and knew exactly how to go about achieving them," says Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, founder of biotech company Biocon, who has been dealing with civic issues in Bangalore with Nilekani.

Many of Bangalore's residents have only praise for their fellow Bangalorean, who also spends time these days in New Delhi, where he has a sprawling government bungalow and a Cabinet rank as UIDAI chairman.

When theatre activist Arundhati Nag was setting up Ranga Shankara — a theatre campus — the Nilekanis sent her a Rs 50 lakh cheque. "They have visited Ranga Shankara several times to watch plays. But they have never requested passes. It's normal to see Nandan or Rohini standing in the queue to buy tickets," Nag says.

Brand consultant Harish Bijoor stresses that Nilekani can "sell" ideas to people easily. In fact, it was through his book, some believe, that he sold the idea of Aadhaar to the government. "This (ability to sell ideas) will go a long way if he were to join politics," adds Bijoor, who was his junior at Bishop Cotton Boys' School, Bangalore.

Nilekani studied for some years at the Bangalore school when his father was a manager in a textile mill, Mysore and Minerva Mills. "My father, an ardent Nehruvian, would constantly rail against the evils of big business, and how the Indian approach was the ideal approach. Many Indians believed in these ideas then; few of us believe in them now," Nilekani wrote in his book.

But his father ran into hard times and had to move out of Bangalore for work when Nilekani was 12. For his education, his parents put him up in his uncle's house in Dharwad, where he studied at St Joseph's High School, before moving to IIT, Bombay (IIT-B).

"So at a very young age, I was away from my parents. I developed an amount of independence and learned to stand on my own feet," Nilekani told Foreign Policy, a magazine now run by The Washington Post.

In 1998, to acknowledge his debt to his uncle, he donated Rs 70 lakh to his alma mater to set up a chair in the name of Subbarao M. Nilekani. He also donated a large number of his shares in Infosys to IIT-B, worth Rs 6-7 crore, says S.P. Sukhatme, a former director and an emeritus professor at IIT-B.

"The best thing about him is that he doesn't want to publicise his gifts. He says: 'I believe philanthropy shouldn't be flaunted.' Last week when I went to the new IIT at Gandhinagar, the director told me that Nandan had donated a big amount to the budding institution." Nilekani's Twitter handle (he has over 29,815 followers) describes him as a philanthropist.

Old IIT-ian Dinar Bhatkar adds that Nilekani is IIT-B's single largest donor. "In 2003, when the institute was running short of Rs 13 crore to build its two hostels, Nandan told the then director that he would foot the bill for the second one."

Nilekani, clearly, believes that he owes a lot to IIT where he spent his formative years. He honed his organisational skills there, when he organised the college festival, Mood Indigo, two years in a row. Old college mates remember him as someone who was particularly good at Just a Minute — a contest where contestants have to speak without pausing, and make sure their speech has no repetitions, logic flaws or fumbles.

"But once he and (minister) Jairam Ramesh returned to the campus, tails between their legs, having lost in a quiz competition conducted by Doordarshan," recalls old college mate Kirat Patel, executive director, Alkyl Amines Chemicals Ltd. "IIT was very unforgiving in such a situation."

Nilekani met Rohini — then a student of Mumbai's Elphinstone College — at one such festival. "There weren't too many girls at IIT-B those days but his long eyelashes made him popular with the girls," Patel says.

Their two children — Janhavi and Nihar — studied at Yale. Janhavi, a doctoral research fellow in Harvard, is married to follow Yalie Shray Chandra, whose father works for Tata Steel and mother is a schoolteacher. Nihar studied economics and international studies.

Nilekani's associates stress that he is articulate, communicative and delegates work. His memory for people and facts is exceptional. "Nandan is a people person. He knows everyone in all walks of life," Gopalakrishnan adds. "He is also a foodie and knows the best restaurants in each city."

So will these traits help him if he ever becomes Prime Minister? "Nandan is ambitious. He knows what he wants in life. He wanted to become CEO, he became CEO. He wanted to write a book, he wrote a book and made it popular," says Mohandas Pai, former CFO and HR head of Infosys. "He is articulate, a workaholic, a good team leader and a visionary. And he is persuasive. I think people would require a serious politician like him."

But Nilekani is holding his cards close to his chest. He did not respond to repeated calls and emails from The Telegraph.

The words of an old batchmate may be an indicator of the times to come. Dr Rohit Manchanda, a professor at IIT-B who documented 50 years of the institute in a book, was in touch with many students for the volume. The old student told him how Nilekani got involved in the festival: "Nandan started slowly but gradually took control of situations and before long he was telling everybody what to do. And they all followed without any protest."

Watch out for the 2014 sequel.

The good and the bad

Strengths

A master salesman: Since his early days at Infosys he'd met global customers, studied them; sold banking software designed at Infosys across the world

Networking and communication skills: A member of numerous government committees, the World Economic Forum; helps bring out reports, writes opinion articles. "His memory for people and facts are exceptional. Nandan is a people person," says Kris Gopalakrishnan, executive vice-chairman, Infosys

Background in philanthropy and governance: Has worked on rural and urban problems with NGOs, BATF

Bird's eye view: Looks at the big picture

Speed: Aadhaar has moved with surprising speed. "If you move very quickly it doesn't give opposition the time to consolidate," he said in an interview

Weaknesses

Not very market driven: "He's always been a social liberal, and not a market fundamentalist," his wife told The New Yorker magazine. So will industry be wary of him?

Technological approach: This may not work with all complex/informal problems — such as how to tackle coalition partners

Considered an interloper: Will face opposition from politicians, bureaucrats and activists