Nandan Nilekan: Not quite the common man

Last Updated: Sat, Apr 05, 2014 03:56 hrs

He may be a billionaire, the co-founder of an IT behemoth and the man who steered one of the most ambitious projects of the incumbent government - all roles in which he would have been accustomed to being listened to, with deference.

But on a Saturday afternoon in a crowded college auditorium, Nandan Nilekani, in his avatar as Congress candidate from Bangalore South, is not being allowed to speak.

It's the middle of a long day of campaigning, and Nilekani is at a meet-your-candidate forum organised by the Bangalore Political Action Committee, or BPAC. The four candidates for Bangalore South from the major parties have been asked by BPAC head and Biocon Chairperson Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw to share their views on urban development and planning.

But when his turn comes, the former Infosys CEO's attempts to outline his ideas are drowned by vociferous members of the audience because, horrors, he begins speaking in English. One gentleman with a grey walrus moustache is particularly prompt in bouncing up and rushing towards the stage, index finger wagging at what he clearly feels is sacrilege.

With language being a sensitive issue in the state, lack of fluency in Kannada may be something of an Achilles heel, but the political debutant does not appear flustered by the turn of events, and merely waits for the furore to subside. The 58-year-old, whose mother tongue is Konkani, continues in Kannada mixed liberally with English, and when his proposals are articulated - prioritising water supply for the city, measures to rejuvenate its lakes and job creation - they are greeted with loud applause.

The language fracas turns out to be but a mild precursor to the storm that breaks out a few minutes later. The spark is lit by the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, candidate and five-time MP, Ananth Kumar, when he is asked about the questions he would raise in Parliament if re-elected. Dressed in a short-sleeved beige kurta with a saffron angavastram, not unlike the attire often sported by BJP prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi, the veteran politician had made quite the grand entrance, striding in with a posse of supporters after everybody else had been seated.

Now, instead of answering the question, Kumar veers off, invoking Modi's name repeatedly and even more puzzlingly, segueing into Pakistani infiltration and the Line of Control. This is of a piece with his broader strategy to project the election as a contest between Modi and Rahul Gandhi. But at this particular venue, it leads to an uproar, effectively ending the discussion.

The organisers and the candidates try hard to calm the crowd, but even Ananth Kumar's attempts, mainly the exhortation "Bolo Bharat Mata ki Jai," comes to naught. The stage is overrun by protesters and TV journalists. Democracy has descended into mobocracy. In a civilised debate, Nilekani scores, but if electoral politics is about outshouting your rival, he has a problem.

Supporters of the Aam Aadmi Party, never the ones to lose the chance to make a point dramatically, stage a silent protest outside the auditorium with their fingers on their lips. Nilekani leaves soon after, and his wife, Rohini, who had been in the audience, is escorted out by Mazumdar-Shaw.

Nilekani's campaign had kicked off several hours earlier. He greets morning walkers in parks in the Basavangudi neighbourhood from 6.45 am. Dressed in a white half-sleeve shirt, dark grey trousers and Nike sneakers, he first takes a quick round through Harihara Gudda, one of the smaller parks, accompanied by an entourage. Manjunath, the block president, and Chandrasekhar, a former MLA and mayor, introduce him as the Congress candidate and ask the walkers/joggers to vote for Nilekani and the Congress. ("Nandan Nilekani, Congress vote maadi, sir, please"). Nilekani smiles, folds his hands in a namaste or shakes the hand of the other person. The pace is brisk, with only a couple of stops here and there.

When the first park is done, the former IT honcho gamely hops on a scooter behind a party worker and heads to the next, where he plays badminton with a young woman for a minute, creating a photo-op. One senior gentleman wants clarifications on the criticisms of Aadhaar doing the rounds and Nilekani dismisses his fears as allegations being spread by the opposition on election eve.

With the parks wrapped up, a pitstop is made at "Mathru Sagar," a darshini (eatery serving south Indian breakfast dishes, quickly) where Nilekani sips on a steel tumbler of filter coffee. He does not make small talk, preferring to greet the potential voters with a nod and a smile, when introduced.

When he's not hopping on scooters or walking, Nilekani's mode of transport is a Toyota Innova, which also serves as an adhoc war-room. Now, though, he uses the time to scan the day's newspapers while the venue for breakfast is debated by his team. Since even breakfast choices can become a political minefield while campaigning, Madurai Idli is abandoned in favour of Brahmin's Coffee Bar in Basavangudi, because the former, being Tamilian, might send out the wrong signals. Brahmin's, a venerable darshini famed for its fluffy idlis, is a safe bet.

The first-time politician has been up since 5 am, despite having gone to bed at midnight. Mornings, he says, are usually reserved for meeting voters in parks, because there's a walking culture in Bangalore. Campaigning usually starts at 6.30 am and the team is at work till 11 at night. "It's a tough game," he says, though his broad smile suggests he is up to the challenge. "Ananth Kumar is trying to distract people from his non-performance. There is a huge anti-incumbency wave against him."

At Brahmin's, where he has an idli and vada, Nilekani is not always instantly recognised but quite a few of the younger customers ask if they could be photographed with him and he obliges willingly. A young couple, Mitender and Latha Jain, say they would consider voting for him this time, though they had voted for Ananth Kumar in 2009, because "he's very educated" and "we predict he can do something good for the people."

During those interactions, Nilekani appears most at ease when speaking to people who seem to be from the upper middle-class and who recognise him instantly. He has a short conversation with one young woman who excitedly tells him she used to work with Infosys and he asks another older lady if she had received the letter he sent, a reference to letters sent to nearly every voter in his constituency registered on the electoral rolls.

 But perhaps because he is more comfortable in English, Nilekani seems unable to make a similar connection with those from the lower middle-class, something grassroots politicians are often adept at.

Fortunately for him, Bangalore South is considered an urban middle-class constituency. But whether its members would turn up on polling day is a different matter. In the 2009 elections, the constituency, which former Air Deccan founder captain Gopinath had unsuccessfully contested from as an independent, had the dubious distinction of recording the lowest voter turnout in the state: 44.7 per cent.

Before the main event of the day, a padayatra through the BTM assembly constituency, the team stops at Nilekani's campaign office, a lovely old two-storey house in upmarket Jayanagar lent by Infosys co-founder N S Raghavan. The house is shorn of the symbols one expects at the headquarters of a hectic election campaign, such as banners or posters - the only such sign is a whiteboard at the entrance with the day's agenda.

In keeping with his image of an unconventional politician, Nilekani emerges in half an hour not in the white kurta-pyjama favoured by his party leaders but in another white shirt and dark trousers. The only concession is a sort of stole with the Congress colours.

The procession begins from a local corporator's house, where Nilekani is joined by the area's powerful six-time MLA and state cabinet minister Ramalinga Reddy, who has also organised the padayatra.

Reddy delivers a speech in front of the house, where he introduces Nilekani, who then makes a short speech in Kannada, the thrust of which is people's desire for change, and their incumbent MP's ineffectiveness. He ends with a "Jai Hind, Jai Karnataka". A couple of people in the crowd, when asked, say they know Reddy but not the man with him, underlining why the endorsement of local MLAs like Reddy is so crucial for the first-timer.

The padayatra sets off through narrow Bazaar Street, with an auto-rickshaw fitted with a loudspeaker acting as the pilot. Nilekani waves and smiles at passersby and even poses for pictures with toddlers, like a seasoned politician. After some time, he climbs into a white Mahindra Thar decorated with the Congress symbols and his picture, from which he stands and waves, while Reddy, who is recognised by many in the area, continues on foot for a while longer.

In their brief speeches at halts, Reddy introduces the former chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India as the man who created lakhs of jobs through Infosys and who provided Aadhaar to 600 million people. Nilekani focuses on people's desire for change and a candidate who will work for them.

What has Ananth Kumar done in all these years, is an oft-repeated question. Interestingly, the Gandhi family or the United Progressive Alliance government's work is never invoked by Nilekani and not too often by Reddy. The exception during the padayatra is one enthusiastic party worker handling the microphone who rattles off the names of everyone from Indira Gandhi to Sonia to Rajiv. Even Mahatma Gandhi is not spared.

At Rajendranagar, a largely economically backward area with cramped houses, the convoy is greeted with firecrackers, the smell of which lingers in the air for a while. Nilekani knows that he must pay obeisance to all the deities in the neighbourhood and bows before a shrine to Mother Mary with the idol wrapped in a blue sari not unlike a Hindu goddess, a devi temple and a statue of Babasaheb Ambedkar. It's all very strategic, with a stop in front of the Madrassa-E-Rahmaniya as well, where Nilekani is garlanded by a man in a skull cap.

Sumesha Sandra, a young woman who has come out to see what the commotion is about, is not too impressed. "These people only come when they want votes," she says in fluent English. Sandra, like most of her neighbours, usually votes for the Congress but this time, the VLCC employee is considering voting for BJP because she has not received her ration card even though she had applied a year ago.

An MP is thus perceived as someone who can be responsible for even the most local issues, and not in his primary role as legislator. But while Reddy mentions local issues occasionally, which he is familiar with, Nilekani sticks to broader points about the need for change. He makes no mention of the constituency management system he plans to introduce if elected, through which he plans to be easily accessible to each voter.

Sandra does have an Aadhaar card, though. "I took the card but now newspapers are saying it won't be useful," she says, dealing a blow to one of Nilekani's chief electoral planks.

The last stop is near a temple, where Nilekani sips from a tender coconut. He heads home to Koramangala for lunch and a half-an-hour power nap. The break will also double up as preparation time for the BPAC discussion in the afternoon.

Nilekani later says he had spent considerable time preparing for the BPAC event. But with what was supposed to be a civilised discussion ending up in bedlam, the team heads off to pay a visit to Vishwesha Theertha Swami, the pontiff heading the Pejawar Mutt, one of the few Brahmin mutts in the state (the others are mostly backward caste).

 In Karnataka, seers heading mutts are powerful figures and while Nilekani might not play the caste card while campaigning, he is not blind to the clout the Pejawar Mutt wields either. The frail-looking seer, dressed in saffron, chats with Nilekani for a while and says he is pleased somebody like him is contesting. But this cannot be interpreted as endorsement of his candidature, since the BJP candidate from Bangalore North and former chief minister, DV Sadananda Gowda, had also been welcomed by the pontiff the same day. In these elections, even swamijis seem to be hedging their bets.

After six in the evening, the padayatra that had begun in the morning is resumed in BTM, though there are many more people now, being Saturday evening. Another temple in the neighbourhood is visited and prayers offered, while a crowd waits outside.

While Reddy hangs back to make some enquiries about the temple, Nilekani moves ahead and is besieged by bouquets when he emerges. Other halts include those at a local leader's office, a park and a speech in a small hall, where Nilekani is given a turban - a Mysore petha - to wear. There are photo-ops aplenty, with aspiring local leaders eager to be seen with the Parliamentary candidate to emphasise their proximity to the powers that be.

As a technocrat, it seems fitting that the person accompanying Nilekani throughout the day is a former Google employee, Naman Pugalia, also a member of his core team and the youngest, at 26. A public policy and government affairs analyst with Google, Pugalia was also part of Aadhaar's launch team. Viral Shah, an IT consultant who also worked on Aadhaar, is another close associate who joins the padayatra in the evening. Shah says he was never really interested in politics but was drawn into it because of Nilekani.

He confirms that the team will be using data extensively in policy decisions and strategy and hope to make data-driven decisions rather than those based on anecdotes, if elected to power.

The day finally draws to a close after a meeting with some residents of Koramangala. The crowd here is largely middle-class and listens patiently, with one senior gentleman raising questions about a bus stop in the locality, which Reddy deals with.

Once the meeting is over, it's finally time to head back home. Despite having been out for nearly 15 hours, apart from a two-hour break in the afternoon, Nilekani does not appear tired, and even flashes a smile occasionally. After dinner and a quick meeting with the team, it will be off to bed. "It's been quite an eventful day," he remarks, before going in.

Then again, the weeks ahead will not be any less eventful, with the day of reckoning drawing closer for the first-time politician who is challenging a five-time sitting MP.

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