Nandan Nilekani, 58, co-founder of Infosys and former UIDAI chief, is pulling out all stops in the Bangalore South fight, whether it is the use of analytics, voter-targeting technology or a strong team that plots the campaign’s every move. His secret weapon, however, is turning out to be a diminutive woman with a recently fractured arm: his wife Rohini.
The salwar kameez-clad Rohini, 54, is driving a crucial element of the Nilekani campaign — the volunteer group called Together With Nandan. Her broken arm has left her undaunted and has earned her the moniker of “one-woman , broken-arm aadmi party” in the team.
“Rohini plays a crucial, critical role in the campaign,” said candidate Nilekani who gives her credit for making a strong case for him. “She is tireless, strikes empathy with voters and can connect with them in fluent Kannada, Hindi, Marathi, Urdu…” he told this newspaper.
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When her husband talked about contesting for a seat from Bangalore, her first response was of “fear and uncertainty,” Rohini told The Indian Express. “We all know that politics can be rough and dirty and I was not sure I had the stomach for it.” But a few turbulent months later, she firmly decided to back him. “He has to do this for the country and society because he has the exact skills and integrity we need in our political leadership.”
In the sweltering Bangalore heat, Rohini, a former journalist who recently stepped down from her role as chairperson of non-profit children’s publisher Pratham Books, is hitting parks, apartment complexes and neighbourhoods for a “touch” campaign — chatting with morning walkers, going door to door, addressing groups of women. Accompanied by friends such as writer-director Girish Karnad, she is targeting areas such as Padmanabhanagar, Basavanagudi and Jayanagar, traditional strongholds of the BJP. “We must all vote to send honest, clean, capable people to Parliament,” she told residents at one apartment complex. “And I have inside information that Nandan Nilekani is such a person.”
On the trail, she is a perfect foil for her husband. He is calm and controlled, she animated and passionate. He comes across as aloof but her people connection is much warmer. “She is the secret weapon of Nandan’s campaign,” says Raghu Tenkayala, a lawyer and key aide in the Nilekani campaign.
Voters she approaches in parks and at homes don’t recognise Rohini though her T-shirt, cap and pin proclaim her affiliation. Tactically, there is no Congress symbol or mention anywhere in her campaign. “Do you have a minute?” she asks, “Can I talk to you?” Then she adjusts the arm she fractured when getting out of bed, and begins, “My husband is contesting…”
Like other IT billionaires in India, the Nilekanis had closely guarded their privacy so far. But the election have required Nilekani to declare his every asset. It is now official that the couple is worth Rs 7,700 crore. Rohini herself holds 1.3 per cent shares of Infosys (he owns 1.45 per cent), owns more cars but less jewellery than her husband, and has a personal art collection worth 1.28 crore, several times pricier than his of Rs 21.50 lakh.
The Nilekanis are talking up their work in the campaign — his role in creating jobs in the IT sector and creating the unique identity program, and hers as a philanthropist. The couple has given some Rs 400 crore so far to causes she is passionate about, such as water and education.
In a sense, it is a battle of wives. BJP candidate Ananth Kumar’s engineer wife Tejaswini too is active in the campaign. Tejaswini, who gave up her job at a government-run defence lab years ago, runs a trust that supplies afternoon meals to schools. Two more prominent women in the fray: Dalit activist Ruth Manorama for the Janata Dal (S) and child rights campaigner Nina Nayak for the AAP.
Rohini says her husband has the support of not just core Congress workers but others too. “If Nandan wins, he will have widened the gates for many others like him,” she says, then adds, “If he loses, we will really have to introspect: if we want clean politics, why we did we not elect one of the best when we had the chance?”