He is the richest candidate in India’s national elections, with a personal fortune of more than $1.2 billion. He co-founded one of the nation’s best-known IT companies, Infosys. At 58, Nandan Nilekani is comfortable sharing a stage with the likes of Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Google’s Eric Schmidt, and schmoozing at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
But now the billionaire is trudging through the dusty streets of his home town, Bangalore, shaking hands and knocking on doors as he runs for a seat in India’s Parliament. He represents a new kind of candidate — an urban professional who rose on his own merit, not through the country’s corruption-prone political system.
Nilekani’s is one of the most keenly watched contests in India’s elections, which began this month and run through mid-May. About 30 percent of the country’s 814 million voters are urban, and they are likely to be an important force at a time when many voters are angry about corruption and India’s recent economic slide.
These days, Nilekani begins his campaign every day at dawn visiting parks in this southern Indian city, where he glad-hands sweaty joggers, interrupts Om-chanting yoga practitioners, and disrupts soccer and badminton games.
“I am here to work for you,” Nilekani says. Young men and women stop to stare; some click the mogul’s picture with their cellphones. But the adulation quickly gives way to complaints.
An elderly gentleman wags a finger and warns Nilekani not to disappear like other politicians do after elections. Street sweepers line up to grouse about their unpaid salaries. One man shouts at him to repair the local playground. Another complains about the shortage of water. A group of veiled Muslim women points to heaps of uncollected trash in the park.
“Politics is the biggest lever of change; it is the key to everything else — jobs, urban governance, safety nets for the poor, infrastructure,” Nilekani said in an interview, sitting in his SUV between campaign stops. “If the country’s politics become dysfunctional, everything suffers. That is why I am here with my problem-solving skills. I can bring about a new kind of clean politics that the voters are now ready for.”
In the past two months, India’s tech superstar has tried to refashion his image, from the bubble of club class and executive suites to the heat and dust of chaotic national elections.
He plays cricket and soccer with the local boys in the park, visits temples and mosques, helps pull a temple chariot on the street, wears an array of bejeweled turbans to appeal to different caste groups, and drinks countless cups of coffee and coconut water.
Nilekani is running as the candidate of the governing Congress party, which has slid in the polls after corruption scandals. He tells voters he’s different.
“I am not in politics to make money,” he said. “I have already made money the honest way; I am incorruptible.”
Nilekani is funding his campaign from his fortune, but that does not give him an outsize advantage; Indian electoral law limits candidates to spending no more than about $116,000 on their races.
Bangalore, the holy land of India’s IT revolution, appears to be fertile ground for Nilekani’s message of change. About 62 percent of Bangalore’s population is under 25 years old, compared with 54 percent country-wide.
“There is a feeling in Bangalore that the interests of the IT sector and the new aspirations of millions of Indian youth are not represented adequately in parliament by our old-style politicians, who are moved only by appeals to caste and religion,” said Harish Bijoor, a friend of Nilekani’s and a member of the Bangalore Political Action Committee, which promotes voter drives.
“If Nilekani wins, it will open the gates to a whole new breed of urban professionals in politics.”
Several hundred ex-colleagues from Infosys and other IT engineers are going door to door campaigning for Nilekani. His campaign manager is a former Google employee.
But both Nilekani and his main opponent say the race is neck and neck.
Nilekani is the son of a textile-mill manager. In 1981, he co-founded Infosys, an outsourcing software company that played a key role in the rise of India’s IT industry. Nilekani developed a global reputation, but he remained rooted in his native land. In 2009, he wrote a best-selling book, “Imagining India: The Idea of a Renewed Nation.”
The book prompted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to invite Nilekani to join his government and create a new biometric identity-number system for the Indian population, to help reduce waste and fraud in the massive welfare system.
For the past five years, Nilekani has run the mammoth project, which covers 600 million Indians so far. The program was hailed at first for its potential to dramatically increase government efficiency. But critics have raised concerns about whether the data is secure and whether the government could use the information to snoop. Some object to the plan to distribute ID numbers to all residents, including illegal immigrants.
Nilekani said he decided he had to run for office if he had any hope of bringing about real change. He and his wife, Rohini, were splitting their time between a government-owned bungalow in Delhi and their luxurious home in Bangalore, which has wide lawns and a lotus pond. Nilekani’s children attend the University of Wisconsin and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
In his campaign, Nilekani constantly reminds voters of his humble roots. He points to the public hospital where he was born, and he rides public buses. He speaks about getting out of engineering school with just $5 in his pocket. He talks about how he and Rohini have donated about $64 million to education and clean-water charities since 1999, the kind of philanthropy that is rare among the Indian rich.
His main opponent, a longtime member of Parliament, has accused him of being a “parachute politician.”
“I am a daily fixture in the lives of the people here; Nandan Nilekani is seen more in Davos; Washington, D.C.; and New York,” said Ananth Kumar, 54, a member of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, as he toured a low-income neighborhood recently. He said he doubted that a rich man would be available to poor residents. “Corporate chiefs know how to handle the markets, not people.”
For the campaign, Nilekani had to take lessons in the local Kannada language because he speaks English at work and at home. He has jettisoned a corporate titan’s expectations of punctuality.
“I would call it the most physically and emotionally challenging task of my life so far,” Nilekani said. He recalled stressful times in his business career when he traveled to Asia, Europe and the United States in one week. “But I still had my weekends intact in that life, and there was some order,” he said. No more.
Nilekani says getting back to his roots has been rewarding. But his global clout may not mean much to some residents of Bangalore. Voters head to the polls here Thursday.
“I don’t know much about Nandan Nilekani. I hear he is very rich,” said Suresh Babu, 48, a shopkeeper. “Can such a big man understand our poor people’s problems of water shortages and broken sewer pipes?”