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Nilekani ready for poll plunge

Nandan Nilekani

New Delhi, Jan. 10: A week ahead of Rahul Gandhi’s expected projection as the Congress’s prime ministerial candidate, a prospective UPA star emerged from the closet of speculation and declared his wish to contest this summer’s Lok Sabha election.

UIDAI chairman and Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani said in Bangalore today that “given a ticket” he would enter the fray for “doing something on the political front mainly because India needs a lot of change”.

Nilekani met Karnataka Congress president Parameshwara last month and formally expressed willingness to contest the forthcoming elections. Speculation has swirled for months that Nilekani favours the South Bangalore seat, held since 1996 by BJP leader Ananth Kumar.

Nilekani’s co-founder on the mega-successful Infosys enterprise, N.R. Narayana Murthy, recently endorsed Narendra Modi’s candidacy for prime ministership.

Ahead of plunging into active politics, Nilekani will have to quit his current cabinet-rank job as head of the Aadhaar (UIDAI) project. For a while Nilekani has been sensing that he has achieved what he had come to do at the UIDAI — established the programme’s architecture and intents, peopled its desks, set up an elaborate PPP network and speeded it along.

The Aadhaar effort, which is partly also meant as delivery ramp for the UPA’s welfare bouquet including direct cash benefits and food security, has coursed along a fast track since it was launched in 2009; more than 40 crore Indians across the country have been given out unique identity numbers which they can use, among other things, to access state-given benefits.

Thus far, Nilekani has stayed punctiliously within the lines defined for technocrats, but his given venture feeds hugely into the pro-poor political agenda the Congress is articulating in the run-up to the 2014 general elections. The stilts to the vigorous foregrounding of the Congress’s aam aadmi cry during the final lap to polls come from Aadhaar.

Personally, though, Nilekani could embody quite another political appeal, a tug to India’s burgeoning and aspirational middle class being wooed away from the UPA on the back of a recurrent campaign of policy paralysis, economic stagnation and financial downturn.

The Congress could well see in Nilekani — author of the bestselling road-ahead treatise Imagining India — a man who could espouse a contrary worldview of the “New India” to the BJP’s Narendra Modi as well as to the urban surge of enthusiasm for Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

It is no secret in Delhi’s power circles that Nilekani has become a valued sounding board for Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, who appears close to being formally named the party’s face for the 2014 polls. Sources say Nilekani is frequently consulted on critical issues, especially those related to welfare measures and imagining re-framed contours of the Congress election campaign.

Nilekani himself has been quietly mulling a political career and is known to have consulted close friends on the pros and cons of entering public life through elections. He has been keen, among other things, to counter the poll rhetoric of Modi and articulate a more inclusive vision of development.