Nandan Nilekani chats with a passenger after he boarded a bus on April 4 in Bangalore South to meet voters. The fourth of every month is Bus Day in Bangalore to encourage commuters not to use cars and two-wheelers. (Right) Rohini, Nilekani’s wife, on the campaign trail. (Bangalore News Photos)
Bangalore, April 13: Nandan Nilekani paced up and down a small oval space surrounded by over a hundred garment workers, mostly women, in a dimly lit hall at the southern tip of Bangalore.
Only 10 kilometres separate the narrow lanes of Bommanahalli with their dozens of garment sweatshops from Electronics City, the headquarters of many of the country’s top technology firms including Infosys, the IT giant Nilekani headed till 2007.
But the workers he was speaking to late in the morning shared little with the world of boardrooms and bureaucracy that Nilekani had inhabited till he plunged into this election, prodded by Rahul Gandhi.
Worse, his audience only understood Kannada. And Kannada is not among Nilekani’s strong suits.
“I will set up a platform of citizen volunteers called mitras who will work with the government to solve local problems,” Nilekani said, his voice powerful but his speech slow, as though he was weighing the Kannada words carefully before they left his mouth. The workers listened; a few clapped politely.
Then Nilekani made a commitment that attracted loud cheers, drew on his unblemished record of delivering on time, and summed up the electoral strategy of one of the most closely watched greenhorns contesting these Lok Sabha elections in the face of seemingly Himalayan odds.
“I commit that Rohini and I will visit the factories within three months to speak to the owners and reach a common ground on the problems you are facing,” Nilekani said, referring to his wife, former journalist and philanthropist Rohini Nilekani.
Just the previous evening, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate had publicly attacked Nilekani without naming him, dubbing him a millionaire without any aadhaar (identity) — punning on the unique identification programme Nilekani had headed under UPA II.
Narendra Modi, during his attack on Nilekani at a rally held close to the garment factories, had drawn on the weapon the former IT honcho’s principal rival, the BJP’s sitting MP Ananth Kumar, has repeatedly used in his campaign to retain the Bangalore South seat.
The BJP has argued that Nilekani is an outsider with little real knowledge of the problems facing the people of Bangalore South. He hasn’t lived in Bangalore for the past five years. And he isn’t even fluent in Kannada.
Rohini nodded as this correspondent reeled off the charges the BJP has levelled against her husband — she was sitting in her SUV, fractured left wrist in a sling, for an interview with The Telegraph after the meeting with the garment workers.
Then, she hit back.
“Sure, some people are better at languages than others,” Rohini, who herself speaks six languages, said, referring to the jibe against her husband’s struggle with Kannada.
“But there’s another language Nandan knows really well. Nandan is very good at the language of good governance.”
Nilekani is fighting on a Congress ticket at a time the ruling party has been hobbled by the double blows of inflation and corruption charges. He’s up against Kumar, a five-time MP from Bangalore South. And at the rally in the constituency where he attacked Nilekani, Modi drew a response few rock stars can dream of.
But apart from a widespread perception that Kumar hasn’t performed as an MP, it’s a lifetime of delivering on promises that Nandan and Rohini Nilekani — yes, Rohini asserts she represents her husband — are counting on to win support from voters.
“He (Nandan) understands problems deeply first. Then, he finds solutions. And finally, he finds the people who can help him implement those solutions,” Rohini said. “He’s done that ever since I’ve known him; and now he thinks politics is the lever to do all this.”
In his last assignment as chief of the Unique Identification Authority of India — or Aadhaar — project, Nilekani succeeded in enrolling and registering 75 crore Indians into a national database that allows the government to directly transfer subsidies to their bank accounts, eliminating multiple layers of corruption.
The allegations made by Kumar and Modi — that Rs 50,000 crore was wasted on the Aadhaar project — are “lies”, Rohini said. “You’ve just got to do the math to know these are lies.”
The criticism that Nilekani, as an outsider to the entrenched political system, may not stay the course if defeated is hollow, she contended.
“He’s said publicly that he would remain engaged one way or the other,” Rohini said. “And I would like to believe it won’t come to that — the people of this constituency are wiser.”
Good governance, the language Rohini listed as her husband’s best suit, is also what Modi touts as his trump card. But there’s a big difference, Rohini said, before making an argument Rahul Gandhi has articulated before.
“The expectations of people are so high, but wherever I go I tell them, ‘Don’t believe anyone who says they will solve all your problems’,” Rohini said. “Nandan’s always believed in team work. Not in a man on a white horse who will come to solve the nation’s problems.”
● Bangalore South and the rest of Karnataka vote on April 17