Playing with a Straight Bat
The IT hub turns into an incubator for new-age politicians.
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
THE MIDDLE CLASS AGREES THAT NILEKANI AND BALAKRISHNAN’S PRESENCE GIVES THEM A REASON NOTTO PRESS NOTA ON THE EVM.
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.
CONGRESS’S NANDAN NILEKANI PLAYS CRICKETATAMBEDKAR STADIUM DURING
HIS CAMPAIGN FOR BANGALORE SOUTH
(FROM LEFT) AAP’s V.BALAKRISHNAN, BABU MATHEWAND ARVIND KEJRIWAL ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL