The IT factor: High-tech campaigns of high-profile candidates

Tech billionaire Nandan Nilekani is contesting the April 17 election. (Express Photo) Tech billionaire Nandan Nilekani is contesting the April 17 election. (Express Photo)

Nandan Nilekani, former CEO, Infosys; V Balakrishnan, former CFO, Infosys. One the Congress candidate from Bangalore South, the other standing on an AAP ticket from Bangalore Central. The Sunday Express follows their high-tech campaigns as they wade into the rough and tumble of politics. Photographs by Kashif Masood.

 ‘I’m bringing knowhow from my previous roles’

When Apeksha M, a dentist in south Bangalore, logged into her social networking account, the candidate’s digital banner ads followed her every click. In TV commercials, he asserted in Kannada that he would build a better city. When she drove her car in the city, FM Radio ads extolled his virtues. On the crowded roads, huge hoardings with his large black-and-white photos loomed. In peak-hour traffic, city buses whizzing past her had his message and picture splashed across their sides.

For the 1.8 million voters in Bangalore South, one of the city’s three Lok Sabha constituencies, there is simply no getting away from the fact that tech billionaire Nandan Nilekani is contesting the April 17 election. Long before the Congress declared his candidacy, much before the election dates were declared, and even before he became a formal party member, Nilekani’s election campaign had already got off to a high-velocity, high-profile start.

Nilekani’s fight is tricky for more reasons than one. Opponent Ananth Kumar of the BJP has coasted to five consecutive Lok Sabha victories. The contest is at least three-sided with the entry of an Aam Aadmi Party candidate, child rights activist Nina Nayak. The timing is fiddly for Nilekani — he is contesting on a Congress ticket when the party’s standing has depleted to a historic low. With little previous political or election experience of his own, Nilekani, 58, has to give it his all.

What Nilekani does have is operations management expertise aplenty. His two decades plus as co-founder and then CEO of IT services firm Infosys, and his half decade in the government hobnobbing with national politicians and chief ministers to push through Aadhaar, the biometric unique identity scheme, is coming in handy. “I am taking the knowhow from my previous roles and grafting it onto the political establishment,” says Nilekani in a conversation at his home one recent evening.

He believes it is an election strategy unlike any other. “We are integrating classic methods with social media and analytics, and then combining that with an operation driven by a large volunteer base,” Nilekani says. “Nobody has fused the three in quite this way before.”

The candidate already has a message pinned down, too. In an infrastructure-starved, politically-neglected city in search of a saviour, Nilekani is moulding himself as Bangalore’s champion. Data points gush forth in his speeches: Bangalore is the fastest growing city for new companies. Every month, 30,000 vehicles are registered. A fourth of water pumped by the city’s water utility is lost due to pipeline leaks. Its daily waste equals the weight of 740 elephants. About 3 million citizens use autorickshaws daily. A better Bangalore is their right, he tells voters, alluding oh-so-casually to the fact that it is the city where his father worked, he was born, studied and, much later, headquartered Infosys. And how will Nilekani sort all these problems? The candidate’s speeches do not reveal.

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The entire Nilekani operation is being administered by a core team of a dozen people, mainly co-workers from his previous UIDAI phase, from a nondescript office not far from his Koramangala residence. It is far from a typical campaign headquarters. There is no publicity material in sight; only large maps of different corporation wards in the constituency are plastered on the walls. There are computer terminals crunching numbers that will spew out real-time data on election day to manage the critical last mile. Entry to the office is barred for outsiders, including the media, until April 17 polling day.

Nilekani says that he has tackled the campaign as if it were a giant software programme split into little, workable modules. “Every time I got into a new area, whether writing my first book Imagining India or setting up the Aadhaar project, I broke it down to its components. It’s the same strategy I’m adopting for the Lok Sabha election,” he says.

Nilekani’s digital campaign illustrates that approach. Half the 1.8 million voters in Bangalore South are of the digitally-savvy generation — 30 years or younger — and, of them, an estimated 100,000 are software industry employees whom Nilekani is targeting through Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. His Twitter account, set up just before the run-up to the campaign, had garnered 80,000 followers before the elections were even announced. Unlike regular politicians, Nilekani has tweeted extensively. One recent photo tweet was a coup of sorts — a photo of his opponent Ananth Kumar ambushed and surrounded by Nilekani and a dozen volunteers sporting team t-shirts.

Nilekani’s Facebook page and YouTube channel are frequently updated and his ‘Ideas for Bengaluru’ website, which crowd-sources ideas for the city, has received thousands of email suggestions.

The high-decibel campaign has not visibly fazed Ananth Kumar, who says he is confident of an easy victory. “What high-tech?” Ananth Kumar asks, before deriding, “Where in his campaign does he display his party symbol or photos of his leaders?” The response to his own campaign is “very good”, says Kumar, downplaying criticism that he has neglected the constituency. “I have undertaken 1,000 developmental activities in my constituency since the last election.”

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Nilekani’s outdoor advertising module got off the ground even before the elections were announced, thus beating the Election Commission’s diktat on expenses. The placement of the hoardings and the bus panels has been anything but random. “After analysing traffic, particular junctions where maximum traffic to South Bangalore flowed were picked,” says Naman Pugalia, a key aide in the Nilekani campaign who previously worked on the Aadhaar project. For the bus ads, routes which would maximise visibility in the constituency were chosen.

Nilekani’s tech background has come in useful when using analytics to decipher trends and chalk out a strategy. For instance, after studying patterns over the last three elections, the team has honed in on Congress voters, anti-Congress voters and swing voters in each voting booth. The edge Nilekani has is not in analysing data, which all major parties are doing, but in arriving at what he calls “actionable items” from the data. For example, if a booth displaying strong pro-Congress voting patterns has also shown poor voter turnout, the emphasis is on getting more people to the voting booth on voting day.

“We are feeding such data points to the local MLA, his booth managers and so on, so that they can focus on turning the low 30 per cent turnout into a 60 per cent turnout,” says Nilekani. Nilekani’s campaign is totally hi-tech, agrees Priya Krishna, the Congress Party MLA from the Govindrajnagar constituency which falls in Bangalore South. “We are using booth-wise data points provided to improve performance,” says Krishna. He and his father, M Krishnappa, are two of the four Congress MLAs in Nilekani’s Lok Sabha segment. If the gameplan works, both Nilekani and the Congress will reap the reward.

Technology is the spine that runs through various aspects of the campaign. “It is the difference between a Walmart and an Amazon who are both global retailers, who use technology, but approach it from different ends,” says Viral Shah, the tech brain in Team Nilekani who too worked for the Aadhaar project before navigating to Nilekani’s election team. With technology, it is possible to connect with every voter and pursue him as an individual, without having to resort to pre-tech methods like loud speakers and street corner gatherings. The team has also sent out individually addressed letters by Nilekani to 6,00,000 households in the constituency describing why he is fighting the election and providing them details of their voting booth. “It is a feat that would have been impossible but for today’s technology,” said Shah.

Another nifty tech tool that the team has built is a smartphone app called Hawkeye which provides team members information about their exact location, the elected corporator in the area, local issues, the city corporation’s budget for the area and what it has been spent on. “The app started out as a need to acquaint Nilekani with issues as it is impossible for even the most seasoned politician to be familiar with every small issue in such a big geographical area,” says Shah.

Meanwhile, the third candidate in the constituency, child rights activist Nina Nayak of the Aam Aadmi Party, has only entered the campaign fray a few days ago but says voters crave a change. “Of my rivals from the two main parties, the BJP candidate has done nothing and only talks about his party and its prime ministerial candidate; the Congress candidate, on the other hand, only talks about himself and says nothing about his party or its leader.”

Nilekani himself has studiously not made any reference to his opponents and, instead, prefers to draw his inspiration from afar. Like in the 2012 Barack Obama campaign in the US presidential elections, which Nilekani calls the gold standard for sophisticated election messaging, volunteers form a crucial element in the operation.

The volunteer initiative called ‘Together with Nandan’ is lubricated by current and former employees of Infosys, his networks in Bangalore as well as admirers. “It is a spontaneous group of those who have known me in my past avatars,” he says. The volunteers have fanned out to parks and apartment buildings to stress on Nilekani’s credentials as a clean candidate. “He is a person of achievement, not a politician who has served jail time,” says Aparupa Gupta, a chartered accountancy trainee who volunteers on weekends and in spare hours.

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It is the last module, the traditional part of the campaign, that is undoubtedly Nilekani’s toughest challenge. To prepare for it, Nilekani says he studied the political ecosystem for months, familiarising himself with “its language, systems and hierarchy”. He now has to coordinate closely with the establishment. “I’m understanding how to work with party MLAs, block presidents, corporators and the chief minister and the government to take me to my goal,” he says.

Though not entirely at ease, Nilekani has slipped into the role with zest. This week, for instance, he led five padayatras in a span of three days. Nilekani is beginning to look the part, says Krishna, the MLA from Govindrajnagar. “He does not come across as too sophisticated or too casual, neither does he look over-confident or disoriented,” says Krishna.

Nilekani has been going on cycle and bike rallies, travelling on public buses, making Kannada speeches with increasing fluency at street corners, and tweeting photographs of himself dressed in fez caps, of temple visits and seeking the blessings of deities and swamis. “People are wondering, here’s a corporate guy, is he going to be approachable, accessible, responsive?” says Nilekani, who hopes his style of campaigning will provide the answers.

‘If an idea is good, it will attract talent, like at Infy’

In his kurta and jeans, the Aam Aadmi Party cap slightly askew on his head, former Infosys CFO and candidate from Bangalore Central Lok Sabha constituency V Balakrishnan wades through the chaos of Russell Market, an 80-year-old building in Shivajinagar in the heart of the city that was gutted in a fire two years ago. In the afternoon heat, swarms of flies hover over meat, fish and rotting piles of refuse.

A vegetarian and a former corporate board member accustomed to an air-conditioned office, Bala, as he is known to his friends and followers, is out of his element here. “Do you know how I convinced my wife and my family, who are entrenched in middle-class values, to let me join politics? I said, if nothing else, I will at least lose 10 kg,” jokes the 49-year-old, halfway through a day-long padayatra. To win in this particularly tricky constituency where minorities account for over 20 per cent of the voter base, the AAP broom must dust away at its deepest, darkest corners.

“What has the sitting MP been doing? Corruption hai yahan?” Bala gingerly asks the fruit and flower sellers who rebuilt Russell Market all on their own. His small, high-energy campaign team does the rest of the proselytising. A silver-haired AAP supporter from the Muslim traders’ community reminds his friends that offering or accepting a bribe is haraam under Islam. Bala’s campaign manager Aditi Mohan, a former Army Major, talks in a measured voice about how the candidate had sacrificed his high-paying job at Infosys to “work for you”. People readily put on Aam Aadmi caps and murmur vows of support.

Mohammad Idrees Choudhury, a dry-fruit seller and general secretary of the Russell Market Traders’ Association, says all 2,000 traders here, and their families, will vote for AAP. “We are sick of corruption and inaction,” he says.

Elsewhere, young professionals walk up to Bala on the streets asking how they can volunteer and auto drivers tell him they are huge fans of Arvind Kejriwal. But it’s a battle fraught with tension here in Bangalore Central, where he is pitted against the sitting BJP MP PC Mohan, state Youth Congress president Rizwan Arshad, and the as-yet-unannounced JD(S) candidate. Mohan won the 2009 Lok Sabha elections — the first since the constituency was carved out of Bangalore North and Bangalore South six years ago — consequent to a split in the minority votes between the Congress and the JD(S).

But barely a fortnight after deciding to join politics, Balakrishnan isn’t ready to let opinion polls blunt his ambition. “The political game has changed. Religion and caste don’t matter anymore. There is big anger about mis-governance and corruption and opinion polls are not capturing the voice of the people on the ground,” he says. “I think the polls in Bangalore are going to be a big surprise.”

At his new, yet-to-be-furnished campaign office on Hosur Road — incidentally, it connects the city to the Infosys campus — the backend technology team is excited about the projections they have extrapolated from the Delhi assembly elections. “Using statistical models, we compared wards in Delhi where the party did well to wards with similar demographics in Bangalore and the outlook looks good,” says Shailesh, the campaign technology manager who worked under Balakrishnan at Infosys.

Having just launched a website, aapkabala.com, and a social media campaign, the 15 to 20 core campaign team members are applying finishing touches to volunteer-developed IT systems that are already in use for managing the day-to-day campaign, the pool of volunteers and the flow of donations. Several web apps, payment gateway integration, jingles and ads will soon be added to the digital infrastructure that has been developed by supporters across the world, including from Silicon Valley.

Bala makes it clear that his campaign will not involve “bombarding people with too many ads on social media” — a veiled reference to his former colleague Nandan Nilekani’s high-profile campaign in Bangalore South on a Congress ticket. “As long as you say the right things, people will be glued to you.”

Like Nilekani, Balakrishnan is obviously more at ease conversing in English and connecting with the urban middle class rather than a plebeian Bangalore. “People have told me I don’t look like a politician. I am a normal person, we all are,” he says.

Born in Vellore, Tamil Nadu, to a local DMK politician and corporator, he went to college in Chennai and eventually moved to Bangalore in 1985. A meeting with Arvind Kejriwal inspired him to plunge into politics, he says.

“Bala is a quick decision maker, and a very organised person,” says Aditi Mohan, the lone woman driving the campaign who was herself a contender for the AAP ticket from Bangalore Central. She compares it to the time during the Kargil war when she led a convoy loaded with ammunition in the dead of night. “I was the only woman. And everyone trusted me with their lives. I get the same feeling now,” she says.

Sure enough, Bala hangs on to her every word. At dusk, she calls for a break and he gratefully rests his legs. “If an idea is good, it will attract all the young, good talent there is. Just like at Infosys,” he says, with a knowing smile.