Nandan Nilekani is not new to public life. Yet, he continues to feel the trepidation one associates with having to attend the first day at a new school as he prepares to stand for elections in 2014. “When you have spent all your life in the business environment and have been a technocrat, this is a whole new ballgame. Ultimately, that’s the biggest lever of change you may have.”
Was this a role Nilekani always wanted to play? Was it part of his original ambition to be in public service? Or is he simply giving in to people’s notion that a professional like him shouldn’t just limit himself to being a technocrat and give politics a serious chance? “We can sit on the sidelines and criticise, but if you want change to happen, then you need to participate. I do know it’s going to be a difficult life doing all these things,” says the chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India.
As he prepares himself to take the plunge, Nilekani expects the attention on him to multiply. So far, he has been widely seen as a poster boy of change, but wouldn’t politics mean swimming with the sharks? “My project has been scrutinised heavily in the past five years. But I think this is a new zone of being in the public eye,” he says.
His project, the Unique Identification Number (or Aadhar), has been at the centre of public discourse for the challenges it faced in execution, but balancing politics with policy, he admits, has allowed him to get a sense of how things work (or don’t work) in Indian politics. “I believe I have been a thinker and a doer. I have spent a lot of time on this, especially after I wrote my book on challenges in India. I do hope I can play a leading role in fixing those challenges.”
There is both hope and scepticism associated with people like Nilekani entering politics. The questions often asked pertain to the constituency they will address, who they will truly impact. The most intriguing one, though, is whether they will remain myopically focussed on “people like us” (usually the upper middle class). Nilekani is quick to dismiss such assumptions. His background, he believes, equips him for the challenge of delivering to his constituents’ needs, of smooth execution. “It’s about making a difference to people’s lives. We need inclusion on a large scale and at speed. You have a billion people and only a few years. I want to let people participate in a modern world and economy.” He shelves the idea that the recent economic conditions have been far from inclusive, but admits there is a long way to go and that it may even need India to rethink the very definition of development. “The way that I would tackle a problem in today’s world is very different. The way we solve problems and distribute things can be very different given how many people in this country use technology.”
His critics wonder if technology can hold its ground against politics, where the former usually takes a backseat and the emphasis is primarily laid on votebank. If there is considerable truth to that claim, Nilekani is perhaps in for a tough test. He admits that politics was an inevitable choice. “I need a platform that allows me to facilitate change in a legitimate way. I’d like to think of myself as a change agent.”