Play­ing with a Straight Bat

The IT hub turns into an in­cu­ba­tor for new-age politi­cians.

India Today - - INSIDE - By T.S. Sud­hir and Prat­iba Ra­man

It has al­ways been a num­bers game for 58-year-old Nan­dan Nilekani. From mak­ing In­fosys one of In­dia’s top three IT com­pa­nies to al­lot­ting 600 mil­lion In­di­ans a 12-digit unique iden­ti­fi­ca­tion num­ber to the reg­is­tra­tion num­ber ‘121789’ that marks his po­lit­i­cal iden­tity in the Congress party, he is now en­gaged in win­ning the bat­tle of votes in the 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. Con­test­ing the elec­tion from this seat is V. Balakr­ish­nan, 48, an­other ex-In­fosys ti­tan, on an Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) ticket. On New Year’s eve, this 48-year-old from Vel­lore in Tamil Nadu de­cided he had spent enough time as board mem­ber of In­dia’s bluechip IT ma­jor and donned the AAP topi in­stead. 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, 50, could have been the Congress can­di­date to take on BJP’s D.V. Sadananda Gowda, 61, for­mer Kar­nataka chief min­is­ter, in the Ban­ga­lore North con­stituency. But Ra­jeev Gowda lost in the pri­maries to C. Narayanaswamy, 65, an old-world Con­gress­man. AAP’s can­di­date from this seat is Babu Mathew, 64, who teaches at Ban­ga­lore’s Na­tional Law Univer­sity and has taken up is­sues of bonded labour, child labour and liveli­hoods of the marginalised. Against a heavy­wei- ght such as Sadananda Gowda, Mathew will strug­gle. The chal­lenge will be to make vot­ers aware of his track record.

Nilekani him­self is up against AAP’s Nina Nayak, 60, a well-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 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 Congress.

Ban­ga­lore has been a BJP bas­tion for some years now. All sit­ting MPs from its three ur­ban con­stituen­cies are from the BJP and Nilekani will take on for­mer Union min­is­ter Ananth Ku­mar, 54, who has been a five-time BJP MP from the seat. BJP is dis­mis­sive of the new en­trants, ar­gu­ing ap­ples can­not be com­pared with or­anges. “Pol­i­tics is not the same as IT. They never felt the pulse of the people,” says Sadananda Gowda. Kar­nataka Chief Min­is­ter Sid­dara­ma­iah dis­agrees. “Ban­ga­lore South vot­ers are fed up with Ananth Ku­mar. They want some­one clean, like Nilekani,” he says.

On the poll cam­paign, the per­sonal worth of men like Nilekani (Rs 8,535 crore) and Balakr­ish­nan (Rs 180 crore) also makes it easy for ri­vals to la­bel them elit­ist. Which is why Nilekani is busy em­pha­sis­ing his roots. “My fa­ther was a mill man­ager. He lost his job when I was 12 and I had to live with my un­cle. When I left IIT, I had Rs 200 in my pocket. I’m some­one who achieved a lot start­ing from hum­ble be­gin­nings. 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. “In the cor­po­rate world, you know who your share­hold­ers, em­ploy­ees or cus­tomers are,” says Balakr­ish­nan. “In pol­i­tics, 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.”

“There is a silent wave in Nilekani’s favour,” says M.S. Murthy, who runs Kan­thi Dry Clean­ers in Basa­van­gudi, Ban­ga­lore. The ed­u­cated mid­dle class agrees that Nilekani and Balakr­ish­nan’s pres­ence gives them a rea­son not to press the NOTA but­ton on the EVM.

“Be­ing a fi­nance man, Balakr­ish­nan will make sure the funds are not frit­tered away and money reaches des­ig­nated users,” says Raghu­nath, a voter. Ur­mila Sharma, 30, says she con­nects with Nilekani on­line. “He replies


to ques­tions on Face­book. But I feel he is the right per­son in the wrong party.”

Mo­han­das Pai, Nilekani’s for­mer col­league at In­fosys, ar­tic­u­lates the flip side of elect­ing the Congress can­di­date. “Nilekani has 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,” says Pai.

This did not hap­pen overnight. The in­cu­ba­tor that foisted the at­mos­phere where novices could take the plunge, was the 2010 anti-cor­rup­tion move-

ment called ‘ Saaku’ (Enough in Kan­nada). Around the same time, Kar­nataka Lokayukta Jus­tice San­tosh Hegde cre­ated a stir by go­ing af­ter 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 nat­u­ral then that Ban­ga­lore’s vi­brant civil so­ci­ety took it upon it­self to de­mand bet­ter can­di­dates in the Kar­nataka As­sem­bly elec­tions last May. Pai and Bio­con’s Ki­ran Mazum­dar-Shaw formed the Ban­ga­lore Po­lit­i­cal Ac­tion Com­mit­tee (BPAC) to sup­port clean can­di­dates and get people to vote. The ef­fect was limited as the polling per­cent­age rose only marginally in ur­ban Ban­ga­lore—from 47 per cent in 2008 to 52.8 per cent in 2013.

Cap­tain Gopinath, 62, who pi­o­neered low cost air­lines in In­dia, says there’s noth­ing worse than in­dif­fer­ence. Gopinath, who has joined AAP, says, “The worst politi­cian is bet­ter than an in­dif­fer­ent cit­i­zen. In Ban­ga­lore, only around 50 per cent vot­ers cast their vote.” He won’t be fight­ing in these elec­tions, though. “I’d have to give up my busi­ness if I had to con­test. I can’t do that right now, though I’m still a po­lit­i­cally ac­tive per­son,” he says.

In the 2013 As­sem­bly polls, Lok­satta Party, that preaches and prac­tises clean pol­i­tics, fielded 15 can­di­dates, among them gy­nae­col­o­gist Dr Meenakshi Bharath. None of them won. “Ban­ga­lore was not yet ready for change,” says Dr Bharath. But the sil­ver lin­ing was that the few thou­sand votes that each can­di­date got was an ad­mis­sion that the city was on the cusp of change.

“Main­stream par­ties were forced to al­ter their dis­course to make sure they don’t cede space to them,” says Ra­jeev Chan­drasekhar, Ra­jya Sabha MP from Kar­nataka, among the first cor­po­rates to switch to pol­i­tics in 2006. He be­lieves that de­spite los­ing the elec­toral bat­tle, Lok­satta can­di­dates cre­ated space for non-con­ven­tional pol­i­tics. AAP’s Delhi suc­cess in De­cem­ber 2013 was 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, who claim to be cat­a­lysts of change. The fear is that Nilekani’s pres­ence 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 that a de­feat will send them scur­ry­ing back to their cor­po­rate board­rooms. And while there is ad­mi­ra­tion, there is still a big di­vide be­tween English-speak­ing can­di­dates and their Kan­nada-speak­ing vot­ers.

“Lan­guage is im­por­tant. How­ever great your mes­sage might be, to con­vey it to the people you need to speak in their lan­guage, not in English,” says Subra­ma­niam Vin­cent, edi­tor of Cit­i­zen Mat­ters, a Ban­ga­lore city por­tal.

There is also a ques­tion of per­cep­tion. For many, can­di­dates ap­proach- ing cit­i­zens to seek ideas to im­prove Ban­ga­lore’s lot seems naive. Nilekani’s so­cial me­dia cam­paign ‘Ideas for Ben­galuru’ in­vites sug­ges­tions from cit­i­zens and paints a rosy vi­sion. “We want some­one to roll up his sleeves and clean the cor­rup­tion that is the cause of all of Ban­ga­lore’s prob­lems,” says Chan­drasekhar. “Nan­dan’s is a typ­i­cal strat­egy, of try­ing to spin a grand vi­sion when all people want to hear are specifics.”

The other big chal­lenge will be to en­sure that party cadres—who look at people like Nilekani as out­siders mak­ing a lat­eral en­try—help their cause. “Thou­sands of Congress work­ers who have toiled hard hop­ing to get a ticket one day, are dis­ap­pointed at some­one alien to the sys­tem grab­bing their chance,” says po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst He­man-

tha Ku­mar. The pro­fes­sion­als-turned-politi­cians are try­ing to bridge the gap by re­ly­ing on young vol­un­teers, but the dif­fer­ence in out­look and the mu­tual dis­dain be­tween them and the cadres threat­ens to un­ravel.

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, the city’s po­lit­i­cal air is abuzz with deals be­ing struck for trans­fer of votes from smaller par­ties. The elec­tion will also be a test of whether ex­pe­ri­ence in cor­po­rate board­room in­trigue can help men like Nilekani and Balakr­ish­nan an­tic­i­pate po­lit­i­cal ma­noeu­vres.

In an­other Amer­i­can­i­sa­tion of the elec­toral arena, mi­cro-tar­get­ing of vot­ers has be­come de rigueur. ‘To­gether with Nan­dan’, a vol­un­teer force made up of hun­dreds of IT pro­fes­sion­als, helps out af­ter work­ing hours and over the weekend to woo vot­ers. This, even as Nilekani rubs shoul­ders with cit­i­zens over idli at Darshini, a pop­u­lar eatery, or dur­ing a walk in Cub­bon Park.

Balakr­ish­nan’s big­gest chal­lenge was to con­vince his fam­ily, es­pe­cially his mother, who did not want him to fol­low in the foot­steps of his fa­ther, a DMK politi­cian in the ’60s. He be­lieves he is part of AAP—which he calls the most suc­cess­ful start-up by an IIT-ian —for keeps. Nilekani too isn’t talk­ing of a Plan B yet, should he get Ban­ga­lored by the vot­ers. The only ‘B’ that fig­ures in their plans is Ban­ga­lore.





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