“Naanu nimagagi hagu bengalurigagi horaduthene,” says Nandan Nilekani, the Congress party’s candidate from Bangalore South constituency, in a video on his YouTube channel, forcefully slicing the air in front of him. “I will fight for you, I will fight for Bangalore,” read the sub-titles in the video as Nilekani tries to sound at ease in Kannada.
Nilekani, who was born in Bangalore’s historic, government-run Vani Vilas hospital, studied at Bishop Cotton’s school in the city that also headquartered the IT firm he co-founded, Infosys, is furiously brushing up his spoken Kannada skills with the help of a private tutor. The results are showing, and not just in the video. These days, Nilekani’s public speeches are peppered with Kannada phrases and sentences.
The speeches are not a sign of Nilekani’s new-found passion for the local language. Rather, they are politically expedient moves in an election where opponents are easily likely to suggest that Nilekani, a native Konkani speaker from north-west Karnataka, is not “local” enough if he cannot converse in fluent Kannada.
The video is also testimony to the slow makeover of a man whose business jacket-and-tie corporate look of his days as Infosys CEO has made way for the quintessential Indian neta look. For formal appearances, Nilekani sports the Nehru vest. For other occasions, it is a two-sizes-too-large, half-sleeved shirt, which incorporates elements of the government babu and a working member of India’s middle class.
But the transformation does not stop at his appearance. These days, the man who is soon to relinquish his government post as chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India is eating, drinking and living his election.
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“Loved the idli-vada I ate for lunch at SLV…” Nilekani tweeted one day. On other days, the “dal vada” at a food festival and the “bread dosa” of South Thindies showed up on his Twitter timeline as also the Sunday breakfast at the very south Indian Kamat Bugle Rock. It is a different middle-class culinary landmark each time for Nilekani.
There are very few airs of the billionaire about him and Nilekani arrives at election meetings in a down-to-earth compact car. The luxury sedan and SUVs favoured by successful politicians are not for the erstwhile corporate executive. The candidate has provided plenty of photo ops tying in to his middle-class roots — riding a bicycle, taking a morning stroll in Krishna Rao Park, one of the haunts of old-time Bangalore residents, and even riding a Bangalore city bus.
Nilekani’s makeover is certainly more than cosmetic. His journey in public life dates back to his time as Infosys CEO when he headed chief minister S.M. Krishna’s Bangalore Agenda Task Force, a private-public-government combined approach to administering the city. Since then, there has been no looking back. Nilekani soon became part of a team that crafted India’s massive city modernisation scheme called JNNURM, wrote out his ideas for reinventing the country in his book Imagining India and went on to head the Unique Identification Authority.
When he finally decided to plunge into politics, rather than be branded a technology tycoon with too much money trying to muscle his way in or as a technocrat who understands very little about the affairs of the state, Nilekani has chosen to make his entry through the sweaty route of a Lok Sabha election. If he wins the street fight, nobody can question the legitimacy of his political ideas. Right now though, Nilekani is still fighting to gain all-round acceptance within the Congress party which he is to soon join formally.
Politics is no longer just about the conventional type of politician, says Krishna Byregowda, Karnataka’s agriculture minister, who lost the last Lok Sabha election from Bangalore South. “Nandan represents a new evolving India, he is a dynamic entrant into Indian politics where there has been stagnation,” Byregowda said.
Many voters too believe that Nilekani is a fresh breeze in politics. He was doing well in corporate India and he didn’t need to go into politics, says an admiring Gita Subramanian, a retired teacher who lives off the Bannerghatta Road neighbourhood. “He genuinely believes in getting this country going, it’s time more people like him took a stand on issues,” says Subramanian.
But when others question him aggressively about his transition from corporate life into politics, Nilekani’s response has become a standard one. He says he feels it is more useful to be part of the system and bring about change rather than stand outside and criticise it.
As for his choosing the Congress, Nilekani says he owes a lot to the party that backed his massive anti-corruption platform, the Unique ID system. The trend of questions at his meetings suggests that Nilekani’s victory against the five-time Bangalore South BJP MP Ananth Kumar will not be easy (AAP is yet to announce its candidate).
It is still early days for Nilekani in the hurly-burly of politics. His demeanour and body language indicate that he is not entirely at ease in his new role. But there is no worthier candidate to represent Bangalore, says V. Ravichandar, a civic expert who has worked with him on the BATF and JNNURM teams. “He may not be a complete natural in crowds — he is more Obama than Clinton — but despite being distant, his track record makes him entirely convincing.”
It is a whole new world for the former high flying corporate executive — wearing a fez cap on occasion, standing head-to-head amongst a pantheon of Congress leaders on posters, and smiling down from numerous large hoardings all over the city. “He is not a finished product in politics, he is in it for the long term and this is his journey,”