When it appears that everybody has lost hopes with the Indian National Congress, Bengaluru’s own billionaire Nandan Nilekani decided to partner with the party. With the aim of becoming the champion for Bengaluru, the man behind the multi-crore Aadhaar project, gave an exclusive interview to Citizen Matters at his campaign office in Jayanagar on March 20th 2013. This was just a day before he declared his family assets — Rs 7,700 crore.
Nilekani shared his thoughts on governance, why he chose to join Congress, and what he can do as an MP for Bengaluru, which is run by MLAs and corporators.
You’ve called yourself an ”accidental social entrepreneur’’. Now will you call yourself accidental politician or was it planned?
No, it was not planned. I have always been interested in public change. My first experience was when I was chairman of BATF. We worked with the nitty-gritty of governance issues, solid waste management, water, toilets, roads, along with city administration and the BDA. Then I worked on the Aadhar project, where for five years I was based in Delhi and we gave 600 million Indian residents the Aadhaar card. I felt that India needs a lot of change and politics is the best lever of change. So in the last eight to nine months I looked at politics actively, and that’s when I decided to stand for elections.
Politics is much more than just implementing ideas, it is also a slug fest. Are you ready for that?
Well, I am ready for politics and I think India is also ready for a new kind of politician. I bring my experience of job creation from Infosys, I bring my experience of urban governance from BATF, I bring my large, complex, management experience from Aadhar. So I think people want a problem solving politician who is not making just statements, but actually gets into issues and sorts things out. So I think people are ready for that kind of politician. People who can actually make change happen, so I am confident that I will be able to perform.
To see the video, click below.
But as an MP, you are supposed to be a lawmaker, while the city administration is supposed to be done by the corporators or by the hands of BBMP. So, why “Ideas for Bangalore” when as the winner, you will sit in Delhi?
An MP has a big role to play. Yes, there is BBMP doing city administration, and you have the state government, and you have MPs. I expect to be a champion for Bengaluru in Delhi, because many things that you want to do in Bengaluru are actually related to central issues. For example, if we want money for the Metro you need to negotiate about it with the Ministry of Urban Development or the Japanese or whoever is providing the funding. If you want the commuter rail in Bengaluru, you need to work with the Ministry of Railways.
If you want to build a road from Ejipura junction to Sarjapur, we will need a little bit of army land and so we need to go to the Defense Ministry. So there are a lot of connections for cities development. My goal is to act as the bridge, the ambassador… therefore there is lot of work connecting to Bengaluru…
You say that you can accelerate the Metro for Bangalore and also make Commuter Rail Service (CRS) happen. Can you give us an example; take us through some details on why these get stuck or go slow, and how your intervention as MP might help.
In the case of Metro, it seems general. It’s not so much of a technology issue, because Metro technology now is common in India. The two big factors typically are finances and land acquisition. To construct something we need land. Land acquisition is also a local issue. The Metro organisation has to do the land acquisition, but funding is often a central issue, as a lot of funds for Metro come from Central government funds, in some cases it has come from Japanese aid agencies, for example Delhi Metro. So I think on the matter of funding of Metros, I can play a role in helping in the negotiating, to make sure there are adequate funds.
In case of commuter rail, all railways in India are done by the Ministry Of Railways. So for any commuter rail project, the Ministry has to play an intrinsic part of that arrangement. Ideally if you create an SPV (Special Purpose Vehicle) for commuter rail, they have to be a shareholder; they have to make it work. So that is a Central government thing, so one has to work with the Ministry of Railways.
Coming to your E-governance experience, you have funded the E-governance Foundation. What did you learn from that, and how different was it?
Well, my initiative was to show that city governance can be improved a great deal by using technology. It builds a platform like public tax collection, online building land approval, website for every city. Therefore it is another example to show how technology can be useful in building systems in cities.
Was it useful?
Yes of course; it is running in hundreds of cities.
Rohini Nilekani, your wife, has created /funded some exceedingly well-focused/effective NGOs – Arghyam, Akshara etc. What is your role? Do you take credit for some of those ideas?
No, it is entirely her creation. She is no longer with Akshara, but at Arghyam, she is the chairperson and you know it is a leading NGO for water. She also recently became chairperson of Pratham Books which has printed millions of books.
So you don’t take credits for it?
No, not at all. (Smiles)
What is your take on the corporates or businesses that help you or favour you during elections, and ask for favours back once you get into power?
I think certainly corporates should provide political funding, because elections do require money and corporates should definitely fund. But, it should not be with a quid pro quo, they should not say, “do this for me.” They should do it because they want better governance in this country. I don’t think we should have such a situation where funding is given for favours.
Are you aware of this massive SEZ project coming up within your constituency on the banks of Agara and Bellandur Lake? (Click for related stories)
I don’t know whether it comes in my constituency, but I will definitely look at all projects and see how we can address all stakeholders and address it with a possible reasonable solution. (Note:The project falls partially in Bangalore South, and mostly in Bangalore Central.)
You have a point when you say Aadhar can stop corruption. But why did such a massive and important project get implemented without sufficient legal backing, even without the bill being passed in Parliament?
Well, there is 100% legal backing for Aadhaar. Aadhaar is the prerogative of the government. The law which is in consideration in Parliament, is not the law to seek permission to start Aadhaar. The purpose of the law is to be a regulator – to regulate the ongoing activities of Aadhaar.
For example, there is a body called SEBI which is the Security Exchange Board of India. SEBI was in operation from many years before this SEBI Act was passed. Similarly there is body for pensions called PFRDA. PFRDA has been in action for many years and the PFRDA bill was passed only last year. The government can start a project with full legs and authority, and subsequently they can create a regulatory architecture for it.
Why does it take so long to create, according to you, such a regulatory law? Because by the time crores of rupees are invested into the scheme itself.
No, no, it is already saving the country crores of rupees. I mean Aadhaar is a very important project, because it is helping to eliminate hoaxes and duplicates from beneficiary data bases, and it easily can recover its spending in matter of few years.
If BJP comes to power, they say they will rethink Aadhaar. What is your take on this?
I don’t know which government is coming to power, I wait for the people of India to decide that on May 16th. But I am confident that whichever government comes to power, they will support Aadhaar. Because after 60 crore people have gotten Aadhaar numbers, and given the fact that it is a huge tool for social inclusion, and such a huge tool for making government efficient and corruption-free, I am sure every government will support it.
Now that you will step down towards the end of March from the UID?
No, I have already stepped down. I already resigned from it.
Oh, so now that you have stepped down, who is the next person to take over Aadhaar?
The Government of India will decide that.
So, will you continue to associate with it?
No, I resigned last week and my resignation has been accepted. So I am no longer associated with it.
Not even in the advisory board?
No, I am a private citizen.
So how was your experience in the last few weeks, in the heat and dust of campaigning?
Well, it has been very good. As you know I have been doing an intensive campaign. In last week I have done about six padayatras, 4 to 5 hours each time, going through different parts of Bengaluru South.
The only area that I have not visited is BTM Layout which I will do in next few days. So, it’s been a positive experience, there is a huge demand for change. People want a new MP, capable, clean hardworking, and honest and committed and I am very confident that I will win this election with the help of the people of Bengaluru South.
Why did Congress choose you? Considering the fact that Congress’s image has been tarnished over the years, are they using you to cleanse their image?
No, I think the Congress party’s ideology and my ideology are very similar. I believe in secular, liberal Indian society which gives opportunity for all people irrespective of what religion, caste, ethnicity, language. So Congress and my views are same and they gave me the chance to do the Aadhaar project. Therefore I would like to be with Congress.
What would happen to Nandan Nilekani if he doesn’t win elections? Will he stop being a politician?
No, I have entered into politics to bring a change. But the question is moot, because I will win this election.
If by chance Congress happens to get to rule this country again, what will Nandan Nilekani become? What will be his place in the government?
I am a team player. Whatever government is formed, and if the Congress party is part of that government, whatever role they will assign me, it will be fine.