Infosys' chief sees his public role as a force multiplier for philanthropy - his book, he says, is a framework of ideas to help India meet the challenges ahead.
Nandan Nilekani’s choice of eatery for lunch, Koshy’s, says a fair bit about him. The place is quintessential Bangalore, the city that is everyone’s favourite, or was really, until glass and concrete came and the trees began to go. It is high on good breeding and low on flaunting newly earned wealth. It also has two sections, one that is not airconditioned, full of casual smartness and exuding a coffee house feel, the other airconditioned, more done up and maybe less exciting, writes Subir Roy.
We run into a problem, he likes the non-airconditioned side, but the place buzzes with conversation which will interfere with the recording of our conversation. We settle for the more sedate side and he immediately goes into a reminiscence of his school days when his father used to bring him to the British Council library that was housed on the floor above and then to Koshy’s of course. He asks a waiter to locate “Prem”, the proprietor (he knows the Koshy siblings well), who soon arrives and they talk about the “school” (Bishop Cotton), another defining Bangalore institution.
Nilekani asks for crab but it is not available. So he settles for sukha prawn masala with roti, while I go for my favourite fish and chips. The proprietor recommends for starters lightly pepper fried pork which comes with the compliments of the house. Nilekani is a robust eater, and attacks the food vigorously, freely using his fingers. What comes across is his informality and unbounded self-confidence.
I tell him that I have more of him on tape than any other person (this is not his first lunch with BS) and we immediately go into how the world has changed since we last met when he was deep into writing his book (Imagining India, which has just been released). Nilekani sees two challenges facing the country today, one within and one without. It is now apparent that “we were riding on a global liquidity boom”. Remove the “steroid”, as is happening now, and 2-3 per cent of growth will go. The current economic crisis has brought attention back to the basics. In that sense the book is timely, as it is about “fundamentals”. “We will now enter an era of deleveraging”, which will sort out the men from the boys among firms, “those which suck in cash and those which throw out cash”.
I ask if an element of hubris had crept into the national psyche. He says some “triumphalism” had built up. “After a few years of 8 per cent plus growth we felt that we were already a super power. We took credit for global factors, and took the foot off reforms, the hard stuff in reforms. Now it is clear there is no more time to delay the fundamental reforms.”
This is where the book comes in and he gets to the heart of his argument. The present crisis notwithstanding, India’s strengths remain. They are in its demographics, the deep bench of entrepreneurs, English as a language of choice, embraced technology and thriving democracy. There are verticals that divide, like religion, caste and language, and there are horizontal pluses, ideas which will bring change. The book, which he says looks to the future and not the past, lists 18 of them, no less! All nations survive on a “framework of ideas which people subscribe to and which acts as a safety net. I am hoping the book will provide that framework, which acts as a shock absorber against poor governance”.
This brings me to the point that we have a lot going for ourselves but just don’t seem to be getting our governance right. I confess I can’t share his optimism about the future. But he is confident people will demand governance and get it. People power will change the “entrenched interests”. In the book, “I am articulating the demands of the inchoate, putting it in a framework, to meet the challenges ahead”.
A key part of Nilekani’s persona is his sense of public purpose. He does not stop at being a successful entrepreneur and amassing a fortune. He sees himself as “a child of access, a beneficiary of all that is good in the country.” His parents sent him to a good school and then he went to the IIT, which was a creation of Nehru. “I have a moral obligation to repay my debt.” Hence the public role he sets for himself. This has several facets. He is a philanthropist but wants to influence policy so that the philanthropy has a “multiplier effect”. He seeks to do this by “pushing ideas at the policy level, evangelising them, playing a role in policy making and its execution”. But he steadfastly denies his eyes are set on eventually joining politics. His work will have primacy and he sees himself continuing as executive chairman of Infosys, based in Bangalore. The public role is additional.
To pursue the public role, to push his ideas, he takes the help of institutions. He heads NCAER (National Council for Applied Economic Research) and is on the board of ICRIER (Indian Council for Research in International Economic Relations). Plus he is going to fund a high quality think tank and is involved in the setting up of an Institution for Human Settlement. It will have a top quality university and academic centre for city governance. How we design our cities matters critically. Public health improves, or deteriorates, depending on whether a city is designed to facilitate walking or not. He recalls what the head of the Australian post office told him. When postmen’s bicycles were replaced by motorcycles, their weight went up.
On healthcare I ask if we are not mindlessly copying the flawed US model and he says we should be able to learn from others’ mistakes. We must not exchange one set of problems like malnutrition with another like obesity. Hence he would emphasis preventive as much as curative care. As for paying for your healthcare, he visualises a three tier system whereby the better off pay their full health insurance premium, the government shares the burden of those in the middle and pays the full premium for the poor. Significantly, he does not consider resource a major hurdle. His idea is to “leverage technology to develop high volume low cost effective solutions, not do things the old fashioned way with clerks and sub-clerks”.
In being an entrepreneur-businessman who has a role in policy he has in mind Americans like Edward Filene of the eponymous department stores who pioneered credit unions, Eugene Mayer who was publisher of The Washington Post and headed the World Bank, and Averell Harriman who ran a railroad company and then went on to become ambassador extraordinary. A good Indian role model for him is Sam Pitroda, “which is why I so readily agreed to serve with him in the Knowledge Commission”. In seeking to influence policy, patience is of the essence. He recalls how Suresh Prabhu, while he was power minister, asked Nilekani to do a report on IT in the power sector. But by the time the report was submitted, Prabhu had moved on. Then, six years later, Jairam Ramesh came into the power portfolio and dusted off that report and asked Nilekani to update it!
As we come to the end of our meal and both order unsweetened curd, maybe to compensate for all the masala and fried stuff consumed, I turn the conversation to the personal. Writing the book “helped me clarify my ideas and priorities”, he says. This is vital as he has set himself a lot to do and is very conscious about how he manages his time, getting the “maximum bang for the buck”. He knows that for this you need to keep looking forward and when you “stumble, brush off the dust and move on”. You must “keep on seeding ideas”. His book is a “portfolio of ideas” and he sees himself as a “venture capitalist of ideas”. You can see him standing at the confluence of enterprise and ideas, wanting to “imagine” a vastly better India.