S Jaishankar may be the first lateral entry straight into the post of cabinet minister but Nandan Nilekani, 10 years ago, could have been the first - when Rahul Gandhi called him to offer him the position of Human Resource Development Minister. However, a last-minute hitch and then a political rethink by Sonia Gandhi and then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh led to the offer being taken back just as Nandan Nilekani was readying to fly to Delhi. Read excerpts below.
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 has 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.'
In the book, Nandan Nilekani talks also of how the Aadhaar plan evolved and how he had to convince people around the country including Narendra Modi.
"On his persuasion tour, Nandan recalls paying a visit to Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj, the main opposition leaders of the BJP, but his biggest challenge was the then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, who, in a twist of fate, would one day become the biggest advocate of Aadhaar. Nandan recalls, 'Even though everything was ready to go in Gujarat, the chief minister Mr Modi had not approved the rollout. Then I received a message to go and meet him and so I went to Gujarat. I thought, "I have to make this project successful, I can meet anyone",' he says.
The scheduled half-hour meeting went on for one and a half hours, and then the chief minister took pictures with Nandan Nilekani, which he later circulated.
'I guess they wanted to show people that I had gone to meet him. So, I sat there with him and he told me his life history-his take on 2002, his beginnings as a chai-wallah...everything. As soon as I left, he approved the project.'
'Did you ever feel frustrated that you had got caught in the middle of a political game?' I ask.'This is the game. Reforms in India don't happen in a linear fashion. It is a two-step-forward-one-step-backward process. There are periods of high activity and those of complete inaction, but that is true of everything. That's the nature of politics. When there's a window of high activity, you get as much done as possible. When it goes into inaction, then you bide your time. Something will happen: the minister or bureaucrat will change. If you're playing the long game, you can deal with these kinds of things.' To keep the UIDAI scheme out of politics, Nandan and his team also chose a name that was non-political. 'I didn't want some XYZ Yojana, so we carefully did a lot of research and found "Aadhaar", which means foundation; your identity is the foundation.'
More importantly, the word 'Aadhaar' worked in almost all Indian languages. But in attempting to escape politicization, Nandan explains how even the letter became political.
'The scheme's slogan is "Aam Aadmi ka Adhikaar" (the Right of the Ordinary Citizen). At the time, this was often used as a Congress slogan before the Aam Aadmi Party appropriated the "Aam Aadmi" metaphor. Only two people noticed it-Sonia Gandhi and Narendra Modi. When I met Mr Modi, he said, "Aapne Congress ka slogan kyon use kiya? [Why have you used a Congress slogan?]." Then one day, Mrs Gandhi told me she was concerned I was using BJP colours on the Aadhaar letter which was being sent to people, to which I said it was using the national flag colours. I had to get samples to show her that they were indeed the national flag colours. Here was a card going to a billion people so obviously one would be concerned about the text, symbols and colours on it. Yet, to my astonishment, only Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Mr Modi in the entire system asked me about it!' he says.
"......And then came a turning point for Nandan Nilekani and Aadhaar. The 2014 election and his decision to fight a MP election from his home seat, Bangalore South. He lost the election to the late Ananth Kumar of the BJP. Nandan's election defeat was probably his first failure in something he'd set out to do, an experience he recounts wryly. Even here Aadhaar had a role to play.
'In the 2014 elections, I was reviled by the BJP as the "Aadhaar man" - even Mr Modi came and campaigned against me and Aadhaar. Whatever. That's politics.'
Besides the personal defeat, however, the national defeat for the UPA was more worrying for Nandan and his vision for Aadhaar. 'I was nervous because there was no champion for Aadhaar,' he recalls. 'The official BJP position was to scrap it. The home ministry, which I had kept at bay all these years, suddenly saw a vacuum so they started moving in. Finally, I met the prime minister to discuss Aadhaar and its benefits to the country. Then he asked me the usual questions, one of them being if Bangladeshis could get it? I explained to him that it's not a citizenship number, it's an ID number. I told him that the scheme would save them a lot in targeting government benefits to actual users and that corruption would decrease. At the time, fortunately, oil rates were still high. So, the government was looking at savings. In the end, he became Aadhaar's biggest champion.'
The prime minister's backing of Aadhaar and his almost evangelical takeover created its own set of problems. The Congress quickly jettisoned it. After a journey that began with a call from Rahul Gandhi, now Nandan was the one making the call. 'I sent them a message urging them to own the project because it was probably the biggest achievement of UPA-2. But they didn't,' he says, making it clear he feels this was a wasted opportunity by the Congress.
Excerpted with permission of Penguin India from 'Defining India: Through Their Eyes' by Sonia Singh. Order your copy here.
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