His much-acclaimed life at Infosys has not drawn to a close, but in recent years Nandan Nilekani has clearly carved out a parallel life in public affairs, engaging both the nitty-gritty of public administration and the more exclusive world of policy-making. And he is clear that it is in this arena that he now believes he has the most to contribute. That purpose has received a big boost, with the publication of his first book, Imagining India (see review here).
He spoke to India Together's Ashwin Mahesh.
Ashwin Mahesh - I'm going to start with something blunt. There's a kind of positive impression one gets from the book, which is like a mirage. It seems like there are all these people you're speaking with, with great ideas and even some good plans for India. But some of those people have been around a long time, and they haven't pulled off anything dramatic, even when they held important public offices. Why is that?
Nandan Nilekani - First off, I don't agree that a lot has not happened. Quite a lot has been done, if you think about it. The stock market, voting, a more open environment for entrepreneurship .... no, I don't agree that nothing much has changed.
AM - But we can also make a big list of things not yet done ...
NN - Look, everyone knows what more needs to be done, and obviously that's why I have written the book. The second half of the book is all about the execution challenge of getting those things done.
AM - And when do you think this will happen?
NN - Implementation of ideas has been a long-standing problem. It will happen when there is demand. More and more, common people now understand the value of some things, and there is growing demand. The common man is tired of being offered indirect benefits. We have to move towards direct benefits.
Look at education. The government schools are practically dysfunctional. The private schools aren't really that great, some of them aren't really schools. But parents are still sending their children there. Why? Because they sense that there is a fraction of a chance ... a little education, some English, could make a world of difference. This is unstoppable. People want to get out of the problem of teachers not coming to school, and even a less-than-ideal alternative in the private sector is better.
You can't have reform without this public pressure ... to make the politicians do what they have to, even to win elections. There's a 'promises that get you in' mentality that we have always known, but now there is also a 'get out if you don't deliver' bit on top of that. There has always been a short route in politics - making promises to win elections. But now there is a long route too.
AM - I want to go back to my first question a bit. You've been talking about many of your views for some years now. And surely a lot of people in power (decision-makers) have heard you on these. Do you feel let down by any of them, that they've not really acted on many of them?
NN - Look, I think of myself as an ideas entrepreneur. It's a bit like being a Venture Capitalist. Except I don't just fund things, I get involved in making some things happen based on my ideas. I keep a portfolio of 15 ideas, and am doing 15 different things at any one time. When there is confluence and a window to push something through, I push. But if something isn't going right for a while ... there's a lot of other stuff to do. I'm a portfolio guy, and I'm always juggling things.
There are a lot of silos in the ideas space. Even today, most groups are operating within their own spaces. Businesses have their views, the NGOs are another lot, academics are on some other trip. This book is an attempt to unify some of that, and to build bridges between the different islands that each group is in. Once there is momentum on that, a lot can change. Look at infrastructure. Different groups all eventually came to the conlusion that infra is needed, and a broad consensus from that has helped drive a lot of things.
AM - Is it fair to say that some of the motivation for this book is 'Indian', that somehow you would like to see this country develop?
NN - India has a unique, a strategic opportunity. I've been in many different roles and I can see this opportunity. So you could say that gives me a perspective from which I can say the things in the book. But I also worry that unless we make some right choices now, and do some things, the opportunity could slip away. I'm clear about this - we are at a point of enormous change, and I want to be involved with making that happen. There's already a lot I do, but I want to do more.
AM - I got the sense that a lot of the stuff in the book isn't really distinct coming from you. I mean, a lot of other people - Gurcharan Das, Shashi Tharoor - could have written a fair chunk of it ...
NN - Yes, there have been many 'India' books, and despite this I've tried to trace the thoughts leading up to my ideas, so that makes my book carry the risk of repeating well-trodden paths. But there's also a lot of it that people have not looked at - markets, caste, energy and the environment. I didn't want to write a simple "India Shining" book, but I wanted to put down the things that are 'plausible' to do.
Like taking advantage of the demographic dividend. It's actually a double-hump, with one peak in the southern states which has already passed, and another looming in the north. We need to recognise this and decide how we are going to take advantage of it. Without it, we'll end up with disputes, migration, a lot of stuff can come apart if we are not alert to the opportunity now. I think that's what I'm saying which is different.
AM - I asked about the 'Indian' bit earlier on for a reason. For all the evident interest in India that you have, Infosys hasn't done much of its business here ...
NN - I don't agree. Seventy per cent of the banks in India use our software ... the entire financial backbone has a lot of Infosys software.
Imagining India is published by Allen Lane, and imprint of Penguin Books, and is available in stores. An international edition is likey to be available in March 2009. The author is fostering a discussing of the ideas in the book at imaginingindia.com.
NN - You're right. Historically, we've done lots of our work abroad. But that's starting to change. And personally, a lot of us have been doing things in India, and trying to create multiplier effects ... I don't think you should look at it through the company's numbers alone.
AM - You're now on the core committee for e-governance in Karnataka. Do you see this as an opportunity to do things that could not be done with the National Knowledge Commission?
I think that we need to try more things on the ground. You remember the strategy paper for the NKC. I think we should try that sort of thing out - figure out what an actual on-the-ground strategy for a state will look like, and begin doing that.
AM - But there are so many silos ... can we really break a lot of these and get more integrated governance?
Only political will can break the silos. The silos are manifestations of political and other battles, so as long as those are not won we will have the silos. But we needn't worry about this too much. Data integration is certainly one way to go about it, but silos in applications aren't totally bad. The bigger problem we have to tackle is with the system of incentives and disincentives for work.
AM - Meaning?
NN - See, a lot of work in government, just like anywhere else, requires skill. But developing functional skill comes with a risk of being typecast. In government the incentive system is to be a generalist. Upward mobility may even require generalist skills in some ministries. Therefore there is an abhorrence of specialisation. Some officers nowadays have an eye on a post-retirement career, and that may force them to acquire some specialised skills, but usually even when they do this, they veer around to something they liked earlier in their career.
AM - You're not thinking of being in government yourself. At the outset, in the book, you say you're unelectable. Could that change in a more 'direct election' system?
NN - Electability has nothing to do with the form of democracy we have. But in ten years we'll have a radically different electorate. Ninety per cent will be literate. Forty per cent will be in urban areas. There will be more media. Voters will be younger. All of this will lead to something else. They will demand something else, and then there will be need for more 'managerial' politics. But we're not in that phase yet.
AM - I've read here and there that you're thinking of starting a think tank ...
NN - I already fund a few. Look, we're facing a fundamentally different challenge in so many areas - health, environment, insurance, urbanisation - compared to what other countries went through that our models will have to be different. There are no existing models for what we'll need to do, and we'll need new intellectual capital to understand our unique situation.
AM - Do you think that it might be possible to force a tipping point in all this? Could the system be swarmed in one place, with tons of people doing lots of things and creating a working example for other places?
NN - Tipping is a risky strategy. You'll end up with all your eggs in one basket. I think we should have many eggs in many baskets. The portfolio approach is much better.
AM - You've been talking about 'IT for Power' a lot lately ...
NN - Yes. I think that in power, we have to rethink the whole grid. We have to come up with a decent architecture, and get innovative, with things like 'time-of-day' pricing. We have to move from dumb architecture to smart architecture, which is much more responsive to demand. Storage technology too will improve, but we could also look at more distributed storage. There's a lot of Information Technology in all this, so it's a good fit for us to be going towards this even as a company.
AM - Last question - a lot of the press about you of late has been talking of your plan to 're-invent' yourself post-Infosys.
NN - I don't think of it as 'post' Infy. There will still be a lot of Infosys, but at a different level. Even the 'public space' part of me isn't new - I've been in public life for 10 years now, doing things at the very bottom (like studying garbage collection) to working a higher policy level. I think that part will be bigger, and I want that, because I think we have a great opportunity in India at this time. This book is part of that intent.
AM - Does that mean we might see another one in a few years discussing how much of the opportunity has been grasped?
NN - One is enough! This one itself took quite some time. Plus, I want to see these ideas work. I've wanted to write them all down together, and I've done that. Now, I have to look ahead to the challenges I mention, and the opportunities.
AM - Nandan, thanks for taking the time to talk with me. I look forward to seeing how some of these ideas play out.
NN - Thank you.