Imagining Nilekani’s politics

Imagining Nilekani’s politicsNandan Nilekani 

I have been meticulously following the vibrant intellectual cottage industry that has developed around expert commenting on India’s anti-corruption eruptions and in my assessment political scientist Vinay Sitapathi’s brilliantly done structural analysis of Anna Hazare movement clearly stands out. Although those in the vanguard of the movement spawn the entire ideological spectrum ranging from Gandhian to anarchist, apolitical leftism to PIL obsessed legal maximal-ism, the foot soldiers of the India Against Corruption movement essentially come from what Sitapathi calls the ‘India Shining’ middle class. India against Corruption’s urban neighborhood centric organizational infrastructure and technology enabled mobilization strategy clearly demonstrates that. The current UPA government, by some distance the most venal dispensation that has ever ruled India, has clearly lost its moral legitimacy and ‘India Shining’ middle class’s anger and disillusionment has manifested in rallying behind a quixotic Gandhian.

In this context, UPA strategically fielding Nandan Nilekani in an attempted bid to discredit Jan Lokpal campaign has been quite revealing. His televised tete-a tete in a news channel that can be charitably described as second best regurgitatior of Sarkari propaganda, leaves us with few questions. Why does Nilekani, who has fashioned himself as a voice combining middle class morality with meritocratic technocratic excellence, have no compunction in lending himself to an orchestrated media campaign conceived by discredited UPA spinmasters to besmirch JLP campaign as some kind of village idiot driven naivety? As one of India’s most perspicacious columnist Swapan Dasgupta wrote in his widely acclaimed Sunday column in The Pioneer “ If Twitter is any indication, he was berated for allowing himself to become a “mouthpiece” for the Government. A few months ago, India’s middle-class twitterati would have treated every word and sentence he uttered as Gospel truth. Today, he is being viewed as part of the rotten elite that is beholden to the Government. It wasn’t what he said that was questioned but why he chose to go public now”.

Not merely stopping with a sound bites to a subservient television channel, Nilekani has also offered his services as UPA interlocutor willing to assuage the anger of agitators by peddling out profound pearls of wisdoms like ‘Corruption is endemic and systemic’, a currently favored propaganda theme of UPA partisans and on how his digitization of key data attributes of human beings in India alone will eradicate corruption. Are we seeing Nilekani now turning increasingly ruthless in pursuing his subliminal political ambition as compared to his more illustrious senior colleague Narayana Murthy whose political aspirations appears to have either petered out or seems to be in a state of strategic retreat?

If one really goes back in to the not so distant past, it was Murthy rather than Nilekani who was seen as a good bet for a possible foray in to the world of public affairs. During the days when Murthian veneration had assumed Gandhian proportions, a question was always not on how but when Murthy could ascend to play out his rightful part in Delhi. Surely as the public face of Infosys and as someone who can justifiably claim credit for building one of India’s greatest private corporations, the buzz around Murthy was entirely justified. But somehow Murthy seems to have lost his plot. In contrast to the iconic Murthy who strode like a colossus, Nilekani was not a well known commodity till the arrival of a bestselling business book that apparently took inspiration from him for title, ideas and narration. Thomas Friedman, an American journalist was on a ‘Columbus returns’ kind of trip to India when he met Nilekani. Legend has it that a casual phrase used by Nilekani germinated several ideas in mind of Friedman who then profoundly contemplated on it and went on to pen the book “The World is Flat”. Post the publication of the book, Nilekani had truly arrived as a trailblazing captain and spokesperson of India’s then fledgling Knowledge industry

After he assumed the mantle of IT Czar of GOI entrusted with task of electronic enablement of UPA’s entitlement economics, it’s now clear Nilekani has completely triumphed over Murthy in the ’iconic mindshare’ sweepstakes. Murthy today is increasingly seen as a bitter elderly statesman whose is more in the news for random acts like issuing good conduct certificates to discredited divas of access journalism. Nilekani, on the other hand, has successfully managed to project himself as one who gave it up all to help country build a massive electronic database that is being currently marketed as a ‘kool-aid’ solution to economic redistributional challenges around selection and targeting of welfare programs.

Political trajectory followed by Murthy and Nilekani also makes for interesting analysis. No one knows what is current status of an interesting political project that Murthy touted for some time – idea of reviving the Swantatra party. In today’s context a resurrected Swantatra party would not have gained great electoral traction but at least found a good degree of resonance with significant sections of chattering classes and served as a pressure group advocating next generation of reforms which have been in abeyance since NDA was ousted in 2004. While Rajaji had to navigate through an intimidating and hostile intellectual climate that celebrated Nehruvian Stalinism, in today’s India a vast constituency exists for an ideology that fuses free market economics with bigotry sans emphasis of our civilization goodness. We still hope that Murthy runs with this idea.

While Murthy’s political sensibilities are at least known to be rooted in Swantantra tradition, we don’t have much clue to what Nilekani essentially stands for. Before his formal initiation to permanent Delh based extended Congress establishment, Nilekani authored a very readable book “Imagining India”. A careful reading of the book suggested that he could have been potentially tutored by a famous Indian pop historian. The book was a creative repackaging of run of mill, median political wisdom and policy ideas that permanent Delhi intellectuals and commentariat keep dishing out with a degree of certitude. The book singularly lacked radical transformative ideas. Book sounded like a pedantic exercise of a technologist who now feels he has clearly understood the societal complexities and political landscape of the land. To be fair author book had its moments to cherish especially when he invokes a nice parallel between Vajpayee and FDR based on their remarkable contribution to infrastructure building in their respective countries

Perhaps Nilekani has no strong political conception and see himself as someone who wishes to bring technocratic rationality to governance process. He perhaps views himself as an individual who can seamlessely transfer his technology centric solutioning skills in to deciphering and devising solution for larger socio economic problems. Political rhetoric and ideological grandstanding notwithstanding, permanent Delhi power elite have long been postulating a view that governance and ideology can be completely compartmentalized through a shared commitment to set of basic operating principles irrespective of whichever political formation is in power. BJP for example unwittingly fell victim to this charade and lost some of its mooring when in power by internalizing this elite mantra.

Democracy and expertise have always had an adversarial equation. Grassroot political activism, engagement and organizational building in a fragmented Indian polity is bloody hard work requiring exemplary perseverance, a sense of inclusive intellect and more importantly an ability to build consensus and patiently work with diverse set of people. But technocrats on an average have a strong disdain for rambunctiousness and rigmarole of political process and would rather subvert the democratic process by inserting and ingraining itself as part of the permanent establishment by directly dealing with the ruling class.

A place certainly needs to be created for inflow of technocratic expertise in to the system but it should the way that a party like BJP does it. A good degree of political conviction and consciousness should be prerequisite for intake of technocratic talent in to system. For instance consider the case of Yashwant Sinha. A civil services topper Sinha was a highly acknowledged bureaucrat when he decided to relinquish his job and plunge headlong in to JP movement. When in power he was able to combine technocratic know-how with political wisdom. Despite vicious propaganda unleashed by Manmohan Singh fanclub, Sinha clearly steered India’s economic policies through some of the toughest times and emerged with flying colors.

Ruling dynasty has perfected a working model that gives them absolute power with zero accountability. While all the great and good things that happen in our land is attributed to the divine interventions of Holy Mother and her itinerant Prince, shockingly long list of acts of omissions and commisions are attributed to a set of bungling mantris though its pretty clear that not a thing moves without dynasty’s approval. Injured innocence that Manmohan Singh wears on his sleeve and media constructed myth of him of being a wronged but well intentioned apolitical technocrat surrounded by set of scamming thieves might help Congress’s machinations but has singularly proved catastrophic for this country. Despicable dishonesty of Manmohan Singh has created an unprecedented crisis of moral authority in Indian political leadership. It could be possible that as part of image refurbishment exercise Congres could like to replace Manmohan with another apolitical technocratic figurehead with a hope that it will insulate it from middleclass anger and let them continue with their thievery. One of India’s foremost political analyst has clearly alluded to the possibility. Middleclass anger might have a limited electoral fallout but Congress political managers are justifiably smug in their belief that elections are about demographic and no political party has perfected the art of communal engineering the way Congress has done.

It would be a tad bit unfair to not mention Nilekanis liberal patronage towards establishing a vibrant intellectual infrastructure in the country. This includes their support to the Takshashila Institution, founded by Nitin Pai – one of India’s sharpest geopolitical analysts and advocates of economic freedom. This post is not an celebration of anti-intellectualism. It could possibly be argued that technocrat alone possess intellectual wherewithal to address complex problems of the world today and a feudal dynastic family run enterprise like Congress will be well served by infusion of technocratic talent. But an apolitical technocrat doing the bidding of political forces while still wanting a credibility differentiation has proved disastrous

Ideally, the political route that someone like Nilekani could take is a INC ticket from South Bangalor seat. Let us hope he learns from the incumbent Prime Ministers’ experience: an un-elected lateral entrant in high office is always a little short on legitimacy.

Prasanna Viswanathan is CEO, Swarajya. His confused worldview is a complex interplay of several profound influences - Aurobindo, Ambedkar, Rajaji, Savarkar, Shourie and Dawkins.

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