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The Unreal Times business correspondent, Ebenezer Businesswallah, caught up with IT czar turned technocrat, Nandan Nilekani, at his Bangalore residence over the weekend and chatted with him on a range of issues including the challenges and headaches of working in the government, the financial troubles of his company, Infosys, and his transition from the corporate to the public sector.
The former Infosys CEO was initially reluctant to open up but Mrs. Nilekani, a former journalist and writer, allayed his fears about getting misquoted and ruffling feathers in political and business circles.
Turning to him she said, “Dear, don’t worry. These folks are not from a run of the mill newspaper. They are from The Unreal Times. So you can be candid and speak your mind to them. No need for stifling political correctness or platitudes. They anyways print it as unreal news, meaning no need for clarifications about being misquoted, misinterpreted. You can say what you feel and get away with it. Also, once this article is printed, I am going to send it to all your acquaintances; let them also understand how you feel about the way the system is treating you currently.”
When her husband heard this, his face brightened up. “Thanks dear,” he said, “for taking so much care of me.”
“You guys carry on, I will get you something to eat,” she said and left the room. And so we started our interview with Mr. Nilekani.
The Unreal Times: Tell us about your experience dealing with politicians, sir.
Nandan Nilekani: Well, I feel kind of lost among the MPs. We are not always on the same wavelength. The other day Laloo Prasad Yadav told me, “You are such a lucky guy, you got so rich without any scams”, and walked off.
Before I could react, Spectrum Raja came up to me, put a hand around my shoulder and whispered into my ear, “Both of us, you and me have made money in similar ways, not like that old fashioned idiot Laloo.” I shivered and asked him, “Raja, what do you mean?”
He replied, “Just that Laloo made money from cattle fodder. Both you and I are savvier; we made our money from high end-technology.”
As if that was not enough, Raja placing his arm around my shoulder was captured by LokSabha TV and I got a phone call from my mother the next morning. “Nandan, how many times do I have to tell you to avoid the company of bad people? You are not a kid now. Behave responsibly.”
Once, someone in Parliament spread a rumor that a Swiss bank had outsourced a banking application to Infosys. Many MPs flocked around me in a state of panic. It was only after I clarified that Infosys does not have a Swiss bank as a client that the normal functioning of the Parliament resumed.
The Unreal Times: Is the Prime Minister receptive to your ideas?
Nandan Nilekani: Well, when I suggest processes to improve the functioning of the government, he is the most encouraging and supportive. But other UPA leaders block my initiatives under one excuse or the other. Sometimes it’s because of coalition dharma, sometimes because it offends some section, sometimes because they want it to work the current way. It’s so discouraging. Most of these ministers will fail the first round of Infosys interview. It gives me nightmares to think that they are running the country.
The Unreal Times: Talking of Infosys, how come you are never seen on the Infosys campus these days to mentor employees?
Nandan Nilekani: Well, as I am holding a cabinet position now, the employees think I have influence on decision making of government. They complain to me about inflation and high home loan interest rates and ask me to do something about it. When I try to convince them that these things are beyond my control, they point out that Infosys has frozen salary hikes this year when inflation and interest rates are rising and ask me to do something about it. It’s all very distressing and sometimes I think fighting turf wars with colleagues in the cabinet is a lot easier than dealing with disgruntled Infosyians. I am glad that I am not in Shibulal’s shoes. But then on the other hand, I have to fight Chidu tooth and nail.
(Mr. Nilekani looks up at the ceiling and lets out a huge sigh)
The Unreal Times: So did you speak to the management about the freeze in salaries and loss in morale?
Nandan Nilekani: Yes, but the management says the salaries are frozen because the business is not doing well. When I ask them what is holding the business back, they look at me accusingly and ask me to do something about inflation and policy paralysis in the government.
(Just then Mrs. Nilekani brings in some delicious homemade snacks)
The Unreal Times: You even avoid social functions nowadays?
Mrs. Nilekani: (interrupting) Well, at any social gathering people just ask him two questions. “What don’t you do something to stop corruption in the government? Why are Infosys shares falling and is the management not up to the mark?” What can he answer, poor chap.
The Unreal Times: Tell us Madam, has your social circle increased because of your husband’s cabinet position?”
Mrs. Nilekani: Not exactly. Once at a birthday party, I got introduced to Mrs. Sharad Pawar and Mrs.Suresh Kalmadi. I casually asked them that since they have so much money why they do not start a philanthropic foundation. They looked at me like I was from some other planet and avoided me for the rest of the function.
(Just then the phone rings. Mrs. Nilekani picks it up)
Mrs. Nilekani: It’s Thomas Friedman, dear.
Nandan Nilekani (shifting uncomfortably): Tell him I am busy, ma.
Mrs. Nilekani (remonstrating): He is such a nice guy. He has called so many times. Don’t avoid him. At least speak to him or he will feel bad.
Nandan Nilekani: OK, tell him I will call back after this meeting
The Unreal Times: Sir, don’t mind us asking. But why are you avoiding him?
Nandan Nilekani: Well, he is a nice guy. But he is writing two books and wants me to write some chapters.
The Unreal Times: What are these books about?
Nandan Nilekani (sighing): One book is titled ‘Indian economy’s tyres are flat’. The other is titled ‘10 policy actions that flattened Indian economy’s tyres’. He wants me to contribute two chapters to each book. I would have contributed but as I am in the union cabinet, doing so would not be right on my part and I will also get the poor Prime Minister in trouble.
The Unreal Times: Do you have any plans to write another book, a sequel to “Imagining India”?
Mrs. Nilekani (interrupting): 2 years in the government have robbed him of all his imagination.
The Unreal Times: Sir, so can we safely assume that you would have been happier, had you not joined the government?
Mrs. Nilekani (interrupting again): Of course. He keeps surfing CNBC TV 18 and other business news channels and sees Narayan Murthy, Azim Premji, Deepak Parekh, Adi Godrej and others complaining about policy paralysis, GAAR, fiscal deficit, corruption and he desperately wishes to join them. But his hands are tied. Thanks guys for visiting us and relieving him of some of his stress.
Now you chaps have your snacks. I will prepare nice filter coffee for you (she disappears into the kitchen).