Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Alt+Tab+Politics: Nandan Nilekani on switching tracks

The ex-Infoscian and ex-UID chairperson and Congress candidate for the Bengaluru South Lok Sabha seat on the new world of electoral politics

Published: Apr 17, 2014 10:45:19 AM IST
Updated: Apr 17, 2014 11:06:40 AM IST
Alt+Tab+Politics: Nandan Nilekani on switching tracks
Image: Amit Verma

Note: We spoke to Nilekani on the 3rd March, after he had begun campaigning, but before he had formally left the UID and before polling dates had been announced.

Q. Why politics?
Politics is the biggest lever of change.  And I’m acutely aware of the hyper aspirations of our people. Whenever I go around—especially now in this new role, I meet a lot of young people, parents—everywhere I see a great desire for advancement. When I meet a lady who works as a domestic help, she wants her daughter to be a doctor; therefore she’s saving money and skimping and putting her into an English-medium school… there are these huge aspirations. We have this young population, half of them below twenty-five, with aspirations, but our systems haven’t really advanced [enough] to cope with this surge of aspirations. That requires political change; it requires the system to become more open, it requires every aspect of our lives to become more open: if people want to get an education, a job, whatever, it should be more streamlined. And that is a political process. And I’ve had many experiences, right? Infosys, where I was a co-founder, went from just an idea to one of the world’s most respected companies. Aadhar went from an idea to sixty crore Aadhaars in four-and-a-half years. I worked for the BATF [Bangalore Agenda Task Force]; for five years, I worked on the nitty-gritty of urban governance: toilets, solid-waste management, roads, traffic, accounting systems, the whole thing; I have a good nitty-gritty knowledge of urban governance. So I felt that mainstream politics is the final route by which I bring change in our society.

Q. What fell short in your previous roles?
As an entrepreneur, you can do great things: you can create lakhs of jobs, you can create wealth, you can change the brand of India; I did all that. Aadhaar: it’s a platform for identity, financial inclusion, subsidy reform… these are all major things. But when I look at what we need to do… we need to do much more than this. For that you need a certain vision of where you need to go and take everyone towards that. And for that you have to be in the game; you can’t do it from outside. You can’t say ‘you should do this, you should do that.’ You can’t be a consultant anymore. You have to be in the business, the game of politics. And you must have dealt with people and got their confidence that you can represent them. One of the reasons why I’m standing for the Lok Sabha is because I want to interact with my 18 lakh voters, to really understand what’s on their mind, what are their concerns, what are their hopes, what are their aspirations. That will make me better equipped to deal with solving their problems.

Q. What are you bringing to the table from your previous experiences?
I’ve been an entrepreneur and job creator, so I know what it means to create jobs for lakhs of people. I’ve done large-scale, complex project management: Aadhaar is the world’s largest project of its kind, and it required me to manage complex set of stakeholders: state governments, technology companies, banks, central government departments. And BATF gave me the urban governance background. So I think I come to this with a lot of experiences, and a lot of capabilities which are required for the political change that we need.

I come with a very clean background: I’m financially independent, and therefore I am not entering into politics for that kind of reason.

And I’m a very local person: I was born in Bangalore, I have lived in all the parts of my proposed constituency, I love this city, I’ve been a great believer in the city and its future.

So I think the fact that I’m clean, I’m competent, I’m local, and that I bring a very professional, problem-solving orientation to politics… I think that definitely makes a difference.

One aspect of ‘clean’ is that I have a clean record and everything I have done I have done well. And obviously there are no financial issues, because I’m financially well off. But I think I have understood the process of political negotiation… Aadhaar was a process of political negotiation; I was able to carry everybody with me, we were able to implement in every state, states ruled by the Congress, like Karnataka or Maharashtra, but Aadhaar is also implemented in the states where the BJP is in government, like Gujarat or Madhya Pradesh or Goa. Or states that have changed their political dispensation, like Rajasthan. We have worked in Tripura, A CPM-ruled state, Punjab, an Akali Dal-governed state. We are working in every state of the Union. The fact that we were able to work across all these stakeholders and still make Aadhaar successful… I mean in August 2009, when we stood up and said we would do 60 crore Aadhars by March 2014, and to actually do that in a government system with all its complexities [Aadhar numbers stood at 59.4 crore at the time of the conversation; Mr Nilakani says that the 60 crore number would have been reached by March 31st 2014], the fact that a goal set five years earlier has been accomplished in spite of all the challenges, shows that project management, goal orientation, negotiating with the system to get tasks done, works.

I would say that if I had gone straight from the corporate sector into politics, that would have been a far more difficult transition. But the combination of the fact that I’d worked in urban governance issues in the BATF, and with Aadhaar I had worked in the central government in a very senior role, dealing with the political challenges in these two experiences has equipped me now t take up this role of standing for MP. I’m not just a corporate guy—it’s true that I spent 29 years co-creating a world-class company, CEO, all that—but I’ve also done urban governance at a nitty-gritty level, seeing whether the roads have been done, meeting commissioners, getting into garbage issues, hardcore urban issues. And with Aadhaar I’ve done the world’s largest and most complex identity project. It’s the diversity of these three big experiences that gives me the confidence that i can perform successfully as a politician.

Q. Why the Congress? So many of the ‘new’ political candidates seem to have gravitated towards the Aam Aadmi Party…
The Congress ideology is something that I believe in. The Congress is a party which is a universal party—it embraces all castes, religions, communities—and it has a national footprint, a party with a huge history of having fought for India’s independence, India’s liberalisation, our social safety nets. And my father was a Nehruvian. So ideologically, i am very much with the Congress party.

The second thing is that they are the ones who gave me an opportunity: the UPA 2 gave me the opportunity to lead the Aadhaar project, and throughout the last four-and-a-half years, they have supported me totally. And Aadhaar is the world’s largest anti-corruption platform; it’s far more important in the fight against corruption than anything else. They have supported and trusted me and given me an important role. So my logical choice… well, that’s where I am.
Also I’m a problem-solving kind of person. So I’m confident that the Congress party will give me the opportunity to solve some of India’s largest problems.

Q. What specifically are you applying from your previous experiences in your preparation, your campaigning and, if things go as planned, as an MP?
I’ve gone into different fields and figured out how they work and then get involved. I’m bringing that kind of focus into the campaigning. There are different elements to it, as I see it. One is, of course, that I look forward to working closely with the Congress Party, which has a very strong machinery on the ground, to do the campaigning in the localities, you know, meeting voters, doing the padyatras… There’s the whole working with the Congress system, the MLAs, the block presidents and ward corporators, which will accelerate in the next few weeks.  The second thing has been the whole technology and data and media campaign that we have. We have a very strong presence on social media—all the platforms—and web sites and so forth. We have hoardings throughout the city, television, print, radio presence, we have sent a direct mailer to every voter in Bangalore South. The idea is to improve my awareness and recall among all the voters, and giving them a visibility into who I am and what I’ve done, because that’s an important thing to communicate. And of course all of that is using technology, data analytics and all the things that we are familiar with. And the third thing is because of my particular background, there are a large number of independent people who feel that people like me should be there, and they are forming their own coalition of volunteers, called ‘Together with Nandan,’ and they are also doing a number of their own events. So there’s a combination of working with them to do the campaigning, working with data, new media and technology to create the messaging and dissemination of what I stand for, and these independent volunteers who are coming forward to campaign on my behalf; all these things are now happening.

Q. Could you expand on how you are using technology?
One is of course the communication aspect. By creating a very strong online presence—our web site, Twitter, Facebook—the classical social media thing. But also by making it very interactive: it’s not just a one-way street. It’s about getting ideas form people. Which is why we have this major initiative called ‘Ideas for Bengaluru’—and we’re getting thousands of ideas. That’s making it interactive, making it participatory, making people feel we can work together to solve some of the issues. Then we’re reaching to every voter and giving them updates on their voter ID status, which polling booth they have to go to. This personalised letter has gone to every family in Bengaluru South; something like 700,000 letters have gone out. That was only possible because of technology. Then there’s the whole analysis of voter patterns—taking the whole constituency, looking at all the polling stations; looking at which candidate did well in which booths last time; where are the voters who are in your favour; where are the voters who may not be in your favour; where are the swing voters—analysing that, using that input into decision-making; it’s a very important campaigning technology. And of course using that to decide the events: which locality to go to, where to do a walkathon, which apartment building to address, which college to go to, which park to attend; all these things are done in a very systematic manner.

Q. Did you learn these things along the way? Have you and your team come up with new ways to do things?
Some things you can only learn by doing. We’re doing it for the first time, so a lot of it we’re learning new. But we’ve also studied the best practices of parties in India as well as abroad, and we’re integrating all those in a systematic manner. Today the gold standard is the Obama campaign, which has used technology and process and voter turn-out to a whole new level. We’ve studied what they have done. Some of it is applicable to Indian conditions, some of it is not: obviously, you study something and then say ‘what is the relevance to our situation?’

For example, when a voter in Bangalore South is touched by us, they are touched in many ways: face-to-face contact, on the phone, on the social media, on television, through print, radio, a letter. It’s very important that whatever be the channel, the message they get is the same: who I am, what I stand for, what I have done, what I intend to do, all this is standardised. This requires a very, very coordinated and holistic strategy. And this is where my prior experience in the private sector comes in. How to think through all these things, and do them in a systematic manner.

Yes, we use some agencies; when we need some things done, we go to them, but finally, we are driving the strategy.

Q. All this can work in an urban constituency like yours. Can you see this being applied in other parts of India?
Certainly, in all the urban seats, the 150 or so which are predominantly urban, whatever we’re doing is easily replicable. In predominantly rural constituencies—because, partly, of literacy, partly lack of connectivity with phones, less television—you’ll require a different approach.

Q. Has the Congress party as a whole expressed interest in what you’re doing, and perhaps replicating it?

They’re fully supportive of what we’re doing, and we have always shared what we’re doing with any other candidate within the Congress party.

Q. From your previous experiences in public life—UID, BATF—what are the … bad experiences from which you have learned?

I think one is the importance of consensus building.  If you want to make some solution sustainable and sticky—it should last beyond you—then you must carry everybody. And you must institutionalise and internalise that into the system. I know that I’ll be leaving Aadhaar in the next three weeks, but I’m confident that it will continue because it’s now deeply embedded in the system. Governance reform is being done; it is being used by many ministries, many departments, many programmes. It’s there. Nothing to do with me and it will continue and flourish.

The second thing is that when you’re driving change, you must make sure that the change you propose benefits a lot of people. They should feel that they’re getting something out of it, that their lives will improve, they will get more convenience. To get people to change, that new thing must be seen as better than what they have today. Figuring out what the value proposition is, and persuading them, is very important.

In the matter of, in the government, solving problems in a sustainable manner, I’ve gained a lot of experience now.

Q. The inevitable conflicts that will come up for everyone in politics—confronting corruption, the process of compromise, uncomfortable alliances for a ‘greater good’—how do you see yourself navigating that?
To issue 60 crore Aadhaars across 18 states, required me to negotiate, convince people, do alliances. I’ve been through all that. The fact is that we have created the world’s largest anti-corruption platform, and we have managed to make it successful. So that shows that there’s a way that you can do these things in a non-confrontational way, you can reach out to people, get them aboard: that makes things happen. I’ll bring that same approach to my political career; I’m very confident that I’ll be able to work with my party, with others across the aisle. I think that if there is a great reform that will benefit a large number of people, nobody can say no to that.

Q. What if all this doesn’t work for you? What’s the plan?
(Laughs) I’m going to get elected. I’m getting a very positive response. People are yearning for a change, people are looking for a new, clean, competent, local person. This is a constituency with 18 lakh voters, and I’m going to interact with a large number of them in the coming weeks. That’s going to be enormously educational for me, to understand what are their priorities, what are their concerns, so I can be a better politician.

Q. UID was high-level interaction, the corridors of power, using lots of technology, logic. Campaigning is footslogging, shaking hands, getting your picture taken with people, all that. How have you adjusted?
(Laughs) You just do it. I think it’s helping me become a better problem-solver, because I’m really getting to the root of what’s motivating people, their aspirations, their challenges.  And I think just getting that feedback directly has a very positive impact on the way I think about the future.

Q.The people you’re meeting… they’re going to feel that they own a piece of you, expect you to be around. But you’re obviously not going to be here all the time.
There are multiple roles: that of being the representative of  1.8 million people, of being in parliament, asking and answering questions, if you’re in government, then governing. Once I’m elected, I hope to have a top-class constituency-management system which will allow the voters in my constituency to be in touch with me. We’ll have systems where they will be able to put in their questions…. the whole thing. I’m a systems guys, so we’ll bring a systematic approach to constituency management also.

Q. Going back to an earlier question… You’ve run an extremely successful company, worked on the largest exercise of its kind with UID; you can’t have done all of that without keeping the worst-case scenario in mind. If you don’t get elected, what happens?
I have any number of things I can do. I can continue to serve the people in different ways. I will continue to be a philanthropist; I will continue to solve problems, give inputs; I am still very deeply involved with technology issues;: I don’t see any shortage of things I can do to make a difference.
But I am supremely confident that I’m going to focus for the next eight to twelve weeks on winning the election. And my mind is only on that.

Q. The UID post was a cabinet-level position. If your party retains power and if you are asked to join the government if you get elected, being a first-time MP, would that be something you would consider?

 For me, the governance part of it is something I have experience of. So that should be quiet feasible. The real part which I will have to master will be the parliamentary aspect and my constituency aspect.

Q. How prepared are you for the hurly-burly of parliamentary procedure? The last Lok Sabha was one of the least productive ever in terms of time spent in actual law-making.

When I started Infosys, people asked, what do you know about starting companies? When I wrote a book, people said you don’t know anything about books, but I wrote a best-seller. When I did Aadhaar, people said, what do you know about government? I think I can go into a perfectly new situation and figure out its nuances . This is one more of that.

Good luck then!
Thank you!

(This story appears in the 02 May, 2014 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)