By T S Sudhir and Pratiba Raman
It has always been a numbers game for Nandan Nilekani. From propelling Infosys to one of India’s top three IT companies to allotting 60 crore Indians a twelve digit unique identification number to `121789′, the six digit membership registration number that marks his political identity in the Congress party, Nilekani is now engaged in winning the battle of the votes in Bangalore (South) Lok Sabha constituency.
If the political turf seems alien, Nilekani has to only saunter across to his neighbourhood in Bangalore (Central) to feel at home. Fighting the election there is another Infosyscian, V Balakrishnan on the Aam Aadmi Party ticket. On New Year’s eve, this 48-year-old from Vellore in Tamilnadu decided he had worn the hat of the Board member of India’s bluechip IT major long enough and discarded it for the Aam aadmi topi. Now as he caps his brilliant career with an electoral debut, Bala as he is called by friends, reckons he has “nothing to lose”.
Further north, IIM professor Rajeev Gowda could have been the Congress candidate to challenge the might of BJP’s Sadananda Gowda, former Karnataka chief minister, in Bangalore (North) constituency. But the 50-year-old Prof Gowda lost in the primaries on March 13 to a more old world Congressman, C Narayanaswamy. Nilekani himself is up against AAP’s Nina Nayak, a highly respected child rights activist. In India’s Silicon Valley, this Lok Sabha election is witnessing a paradigm shift in the kind of people bravely stepping into the cesspool of Indian politics. It is as if these new age politicians have decided to change the political discourse, idiom and ecosystem in Bangalore, with a vengeance.
“Real change comes only through the political process,” says Nandan Nilekani, explaining why he took the plunge. “As a technocrat, I had reached the limit of what I could achieve.” After 28 years at Infosys, in 2009, Nilekani took charge of the Unique Identification Authority of India till this month, when he resigned after joining the Congress.
“Young professionals coming to political field is what we need. They will be the face. It has been a murky business. Technocrats come with a reputation and they will inspire more of the young to create change,” says Nina Nayak.
Bangalore has been a BJP bastion for some years now. All the sitting MPs from the three urban Bangalore constituencies are from the BJP and 58-year-old Nilekani will be trying to upset the applecart of former Union minister Ananth Kumar, who has been a five-time MP from Bangalore South. The BJP however is dismissive of the new entrants, arguing apples cannot be compared with oranges. “Political field is different from IT. They never felt the pulse of the people,” says Sadananda Gowda. Karnataka Chief minister Siddharamaiah doesn’t agree. “Voters of Bangalore South are fed up with Ananth Kumar. His image isn’t good. People want clean image. Nandan Nilekani has that,” he says.
On the poll campaign, the personal worth of the likes of Nilekani (Rs 7700 crore) and Balakrishnan (Rs 185 crore) also makes it easy for their rivals to label them elitist. Senior BJP leader Venkaiah Naidu adds, “They belong to the upper strata of society who have no connection with the problems of the urban poor.”
Which is why Nilekani is letting his 16.47 lakh voters browse into his history to emphasise his roots. “I was someone who came from a very humble background. My father was a mill manager, he lost his job when I was 12 and I had to go and live with my uncle. When I left IIT, I had just 200 rupees in my pocket. So they see me as someone who was able to achieve a lot starting from a very humble background. They see me as someone who can help meet their aspirations,” says Nilekani.
It is obvious the learning curve is steep and the professionals keep falling back on their experience in more familiar terrain to guide them. “When you work in the corporate world, you know who your shareholders, employees and customers are,” says Balakrishnan. “But in a political world, anyone you meet may be a stakeholder and will have an opinion on what you are doing. So talking to them, convincing them helps you gain a new perspective.”
Rajeev Gowda points out that professionals like him are taking the effort to go through the rough and tumble of politics in the heat and dust of 2014, instead of taking the easy Rajya Sabha route. “We are interested in action. If you look at my team, they want civic action, political action, urban action. Lots of people have ideas but only when you engage with the system, you realise the complexities and effort you need to put to bring about change,” says Gowda.
In his book, `Imagining India’ published in 2008, Nilekani had described entrepreneurs like him “virtually unelectable” in India. That is a term Nilekani wouldn’t want to be reminded of now. Interestingly, both he and Ananth Kumar are rooting for change – Nilekani in his constituency and his BJP rival, in the country. For the Bangalore South voter, the dilemma is whether to seek a different MP or a different PM.
“There is a silent wave in Nilekani’s favour,” says M S Murthy, who runs Kanthi Dry Cleaners in Basavangudi locality of Bangalore. The educated middle class agrees Nilekani and Balakrishnan’s presence gives them a good reason not to reach out for the NOTA button on the EVM.
“Balakrishnan, being a finance man, will make sure the funds are not frittered away and money reaches the designated user,” says Raghunath, a voter. 30-year-old Urmila Sharma discloses that she connects to Nilekani in the online space. “He replies to question on Facebook. But I feel he is the right person in the wrong party,” says Urmila.
Nilekani’s former colleague at Infosys, Mohandas Pai articulates the flip side of electing the Congress candidate. “Nandan Nilekani has got a vision. He is a self-made billionaire with integrity. He is going to speak for his constituency. But then as a rich middle class citizen, he may not feel the pain of inflation, of rise in prices of potatoes and petrol. You must experience the pain,” reasons Pai.
But while many in Bangalore exult over the presence of a credible alternative, it didn’t happen overnight. The incubator to create the right atmosphere was created in 2010 by the anti-corruption movement, called `Saaku’ (`Enough’ in Kannada). Around the same time, Justice Santosh Hegde as the Karnataka Lokayukta pushed the envelope by going after the big political fish involved in illegal mining and shady land deals. By the time Anna Hazare took Delhi by storm in 2011, Bangalore was in the frontline, its lungpower lending the maximum decibel support.
It was only natural then that Bangalore’s vibrant civil society took it upon itself to demand better candidates to choose from in the Karnataka assembly elections last May. Mohandas Pai and Biocon’s Kiran Mazumdar Shaw formed the BPAC – the Bangalore Political Action Committee – to support clean and deserving candidates and exhort people to vote. The effect though was limited as polling percentage went up only marginally – from 47 per cent in 2008 to 52.8 per cent in 2013 in urban Bangalore.
Captain Gopinath, who pioneered the low cost airline in India with Air Deccan in 2003, says there is nothing worse than indifference. Gopinath who has now joined the AAP says, “The worst politician is still better than an indifferent citizen. In Bangalore, only around 50 per cent voters have always voted. Those who do not vote are the young and educated middle class.”
In the 2013 assembly polls, Loksatta party that preaches and practises clean politics, fielded 15 candidates. Not one of them won, among them gynaecologist Dr Meenakshi Bharath. “Bangalore was still not ready to make the change in May last year. Voters were perhaps sceptical, not sure if we could deliver,” says Dr Meenakshi Bharath. But the silver lining was that the few thousand votes that each candidate garnered was an admission that Bangalore was on the cusp of change.
“Mainstream parties were forced to alter their conventional discourse to make sure they don’t cede space to them,” says Rajeev Chandrasekhar, Rajya Sabha MP from Karnataka, who was among the first corporates to make the switch into politics in 2006. The former poster boy of Indian telecom believes that despite losing the electoral battle, the Loksatta candidates helped create the space for the non-conventional politician. AAP’s success story in Delhi in December 2013 proved to be the gamechanger, the effect of which is being felt in Bangalore.
But it is not as if everyone is buying into these probationers in Indian politics acting as catalysts of change in Bangalore. The apprehension is that Nilekani’s presence for instance, is mere window dressing by the Congress to distract from the debate on the quality of governance in the last decade. Voters are also suspicious if a defeat will send them scurrying back to their corporate boardrooms. And while there is admiration, the connect isn’t in good measure, thanks to English and not Kannada being used as medium of communication.
“Language is an important thing. Because for the message that you carry, all the clean record that you have, to communicate that to the people in a legitimate political way, to tell them that I am the real alternative, you need to speak in their language, not in English. I do not see it happening in Bangalore today,” says Subramaniam Vincent, Editor of `Citizen Matters’, a popular city portal in Bangalore.
The approach of seeking ideas to improve Bangalore’s lot, to many seems naive. Nilekani’s social media campaign `Ideas for Bengaluru’ invites suggestions from citizens and paints a rosy vision of the city. “We want a person to roll up his sleeves and clean the muck of corruption that is pretty much the cause of all problems in Bangalore,” says Chandrasekhar. “With no offence to Nandan, this is typical strategy of trying to spin a vision when people want specifics.”
The other huge challenge will be to ensure that the party apparatus that looks at the likes of Nilekani as outsiders who managed a lateral entry, helps their cause. “For thousands of Congress workers, it has been a disappointment because they have toiled all these years hoping to get a ticket one day and now they find someone alien to the system snatching their chance,” says Hemantha Kumar, political analyst. These professionals-turned-politicians are trying to bridge the gap by relying on their group of young volunteers but the difference in outlook and mutual disdain threatens to make it a case where the twain shall not meet.
Then there is the worry over what message will go across if these `clean’ candidates are taken to the cleaners by their more seasoned rivals. Already Bangalore’s political air is abuzz with behind-the-scenes deals being struck for transfer of votes from other smaller parties. The election will also test if experience in corporate boardroom intrigue will help Nilekani and Balakrishnan anticipate political manoeuvres.
In a very American way of fighting elections, microtargeting the voter is the name of the game. On the campaign trail, `Together with Nandan’, a volunteer force consisting of hundreds of IT professionals helps out after working hours and over the weekend, wooing the voters. This even as Nilekani gives the Aam Bangalorean touch by rubbing shoulders with fellow citizens over an idli at Darshini – a popular city eatery, a walk in Cubbon Park or a visit to a temple.
Balakrishnan’s biggest challenge was to convince his family, especially his mother who did not want him to follow in his father’s footsteps (he was a DMK politician in the 60s). He believes he is part of AAP – that he calls the most successful start-up by an IITian so far – for keeps. Nilekani too isn’t talking of a Plan B yet, should he get Bangalor-ed by his voters. The only `B’ that figures in their plans is `Bangalore’.
(First published in India Today magazine)