When Rahul Gandhi could not get Nandan Nilekani to be HRD minister in UPA 2
Non-executivethe chairman of Infosys, start-up mentor, founder of the NGO EkStep which helps millions of of children with learning, and head of an RBI committee on digital payments, sixty-three-year-old Nandan Nilekani is on home ground in the heart of start-up India in Koramangala, Bengaluru. As we meet in his glass-walled conference room, the pleasant weather of Bengaluru seems a world removed from the heat and fury generated by the Aadhaar controversy. Nandan been accused of creating a surveillance Frankenstein by anti-Aadhaar activists. The Supreme Court has, however, decisively ruled on this and today in just under a decade, Nandan has had the enormous satisfaction of seeing his ‘Mission Accomplished’—one that began under one government and was completed under a government completely ideologically opposite to its predecessor. This is a journey which began with one phone call.
‘In 2009, I received a call from Rahul Gandhi,’ Nandan begins. ‘He called me on the day of the results, when the Congress came back with more seats.’
This was an unexpected second-term victory for the UPA government, with the Congress winning 206 seats.
‘He asked me if I’d be interested in being the human resource development [HRD] minister of India? “We want somebody from another planet.” I spoke to my colleagues at Infosys, and they all responded, “Theek hai yaar.” So I told him that I was ready to do it. On the day of the swearing-in of the new Cabinet, I was in Bengaluru. Now I didn’t know these “fundas”, that in politics, you have to hang around in Delhi and wait for your name to be announced. At 11 a.m. I received a call asking if I was in Delhi. I mean, I’m an IT fellow, so I said no, I was in Bengaluru. They asked if I could arrive by 5 p.m. for the swearing-in and I told them that I didn’t have a private jet. I then scrambled to see if I could find a plane to get to Delhi. Funnily enough, S.M. Krishna, who had been selected for the post of the minister of external affairs, was heading to Delhi. He too was in Bangalore but since his house was much closer to the airport, he managed to make it. In the midst of me trying to arrange a plane,’ Nandan continues, ‘Rahul Gandhi called again and said, “Sorry, it’s not on.” Later I realized that Mrs Gandhi probably felt I was a corporate type who wouldn’t understand the poor and their problems. Dr Manmohan Singh, I think, felt I was a technocrat, not a politician and the HRD ministry would be too political for me to handle. It was a prime job—they weren’t going to give it to some upstart from Bengaluru.’ Nandan laughs. ‘So, it was Rahul’s idea, but they turned it down. I went back to my usual work.’
Convention prevailed and Kapil Sibal was eventually given the HRD ministry. But this gives a fascinating insight into the discussion that went into forming the UPA Cabinet in its second term and the dynamics between the top three. Rahul Gandhi, still relatively inexperienced at the time, was trying to push his out-of-the-box choice. However, fate had other things in store for Nandan because soon after, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh offered him a job at the Planning Commission. Nandan didn’t think it was worth leaving Infosys to come up with five-year plans and told the prime minister just that.
‘I wanted to do something active, operational, something that makes a difference. And the prime minister replied, “Okay, why don’t you think about it and come back with an idea?”
‘I began digging around and that’s when I realized that the government had an identity project in the works. The Cabinet had approved the project in January 2009, and they were looking for someone to do it. Many people from the bureaucracy also wanted to work on it because it was a post-retirement cushy position. The more I studied the project, the more I realized its immense potential and how it could truly make a difference. In my book, Imagining India (2008), I had written in detail about how an ID system would help Indians, so I already had some background on the possible positive impact of the unique ID project. I had a few conditions though—the position has to be the equivalent of a Cabinet minister which was senior to the original ranking of minister of state. In Bangalore, it’s okay but in Delhi, there’s hierarchy—which level, how much clout and a Cabinet ranking position would give the necessary authority needed to get the job done. I had six or seven conditions, and the prime minister agreed to everything.’
‘It’s interesting that Manmohan Singh had the appetite for such a bold decision in 2009. Were you surprised?’ I ask.
‘The boldest bit wasn’t Aadhaar—it was the notion of an outsider in a Cabinet rank,’ says Nandan. ‘To his credit, he agreed to my request immediately. He just did it. The file for clearance of this project was set to come to the Cabinet for approval the following week, on 26 June 2009, and the funny thing was that the bureaucrat who had been managing the file may have wanted the job after he retired. The file was moving quickly in the system. He was retiring on 30 June. He didn’t know that there was an upstart gunning for the same job—nobody told him I was in the race! In the Cabinet meeting, Manmohan Singh proposed my name. He must have already spoken to a few key people like Pranab Mukherjee because they immediately agreed. The bureaucrat was shell shocked.’
Fresh from Bengaluru and the pinnacle of corporate success, Nandan Nilekani arrived in Delhi, an outsider in the corridors of power. From day one, he knew if he wanted to make a success of it, he had to ‘Bangalore’ the way the bureaucracy functioned in Delhi.
‘In government, you are defined by the size of your team (the number of joint secretaries who report to you) and the size of your budget,’ Nandan says. The UIDAI organization had been designed like the Election Commission with one Joint Secretary in every state. That’s thirty plus six in Delhi: thirty-six joint secretaries in total. Perhaps, the Election Commission and the home ministry have that many joint secretaries. It was a major coup that he had pulled to get this approved for 1400 employees. I didn’t need such big numbers so I cut it down to 300. They were shocked; it was the first time in the history of government that someone was reducing their budget. Second, I wanted to bring in outside technology and talent because while there are smart people in government, this project was going to be tech-heavy. So, even though the headquarters was based in Delhi, the technology team for the UIDAI was based in Bengaluru, where it remains even today.’
Importantly, Nandan also wanted the tech team insulated from the political battles he had to fight in Delhi so that they got the job done with no outside interference. Some of the best technical talent in Bengaluru contributed to the project with no or low salary because it was for a national cause. It was also crucial to recruit the right people in government like Ram Sewak Sharma (current chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India [TRAI] or more famously known as the man who took on Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s ‘Free Basics’ plan on grounds that it was discriminatory).
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