Barbara Crossette Interviews Nandan Nilekani

Apr 7, 2009

Journalist Barbara Crossette talks to Indian software entrepreneur Nandan Nilekani about his book, "Imagining India: The Idea of a Renewed Nation." Their topics include politics, philanthropy, and India's role in the world.

BARBARA CROSSETTE: I'm Barbara Crossette, and I'm happy to introduce Nandan Nilekani, the author of a book that is getting universal acclaim on India. It's called Imagining India: The Idea of a Renewed Nation.

Nandan is a founder and now co-chairman of Infosys, one of India's leading technology companies, and the creator really of the new India about which he writes, one of the new creators of the new India.

We are very lucky to have him here right now, because India is going to figure in the three major areas of global work this year—in the economy, of course; in the movements toward new agreements on climate change and the environment; and it is having an election, so its political future will affect probably all of us at some point. India has almost 1.2 billion people now.

This morning you talked about slogans and how these slogans describe how India has changed and why you see so much optimism in India's coming demographic dividend.

NANDAN NILEKANI: In the 1970s and 1980s, the slogans were about basic things—"Roti, Kapra Aur Makaní," which stands for food, clothing, and shelter, the very basic human needs.

But today's election slogans are about "Bijli, Sadak, Pani," which is about water, power, and electricity, which are all infrastructure. I think it shows how as India is developing the focus now is on providing better infrastructure, whether it's for urban inhabitants, like roads and flyovers, or it could be for rural inhabitants too, like rural roads and rural power. So I think both ways.

Another good example today is the slogan "Broadband For All," which is a political slogan, which is saying that all the people should have broadband Internet access. It shows how things have changed in what it is that people are offering from government to the people.

BARBARA CROSSETTE: "Broadband For All" would have been unheard of even a decade ago.

NANDAN NILEKANI: Oh, yes. I think one of the big revolutions in India has been the telecommunications revolution. As you know, it began in Rajiv Gandhi's time with leaders like Sam Pitroda, who built the telephone exchanges and these PCO, public call offices, all around the country.

And then, I think, it got a big boost partly with outsourcing, as outsourcing required telecommunications, as well as because of the mobile revolution. Today we have eight million mobile phones a month being sold, 99 percent prepaid, 40 percent recharging less than 20 cents. It's a real revolution.

BARBARA CROSSETTE: Your industry has done many things for India. You are often modest about this. For one thing, you brought up a new class of young Indians who in many ways are no longer burdened by some of the traditional divisions of Indian society, who are in an entirely new world.

Could you talk a little about that, because you must know many of these young people. And with politics now on the horizon in India because of an election, where do they stand? Are they active, are they interested, do they want to take part more?

NANDAN NILEKANI: I think you are right in saying that we created jobs and made the aspirations for a whole breed of young Indians, all of them born in an era much after independence, much more globalized in their aspirations, technology savvy. So they didn't have the baggage and the burden of the past, whether it was the imperialism or whether it was things like the caste system.

What is very interesting is that in this election there are going to be 100 million new voters, all young people who are beginning to vote.

And while so far there has been this feeling that the Indian middle class stayed away from elections and didn't bother, I think the terror episode in Bombay (Mumbai) has had a dramatic impact. I think Mumbai showed to the people that we cannot abdicate from improving our governance, because if we abdicate from improving our governance, then we ourselves will be the victims of that. So there is a huge movement now to get people to vote.

In fact, there is a very strong initiative which is being done in all the companies. In Infosys, for example, we have a huge voter drive to get everyone to vote. We're not saying who you should vote for, but saying you should vote.

I think this is a turning point. If we can get the new Indian middle class to vote, then perhaps the issues will go from divisive issues of religion and caste to progressive issues of development.

BARBARA CROSSETTE: More view of the future and less building on the sort of Gandhism of the past.


BARBARA CROSSETTE: You have become a national figure for your ideas as well as for your work in the technological world. Are you seeing more interest in government looking to people like you, public intellectuals, to bring in for advice, even if you're not interested in politics yourself? Perhaps I should ask you if you have a political future, because you are still young.

NANDAN NILEKANI: Well, I think there is no question that governments have become far more open to ideas from the outside. They are under huge pressure to deliver results, and they are open to any ideas.

I have been particularly fortunate. In areas like education and urbanization, a lot of the ideas that I talk about are accepted. I think to some extent my role model here is American businessmen who also were in some sense public intellectuals.

I mean Carnegie himself did a lot for education in the United States, the libraries and what he did for the universities. But even someone like Edward Filene, who while running a retail chain in Boston also played a role in setting up U.S. credit societies and the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 for Franklin Roosevelt. Or Eugene Meyer, who went from the Washington Post to the World Bank.

So there are many examples in this country of people who did both public service and business. I see that as a role model for me—not necessarily a full political role, but a role of ideas.

I think India is absolutely open to ideas from everybody.

BARBARA CROSSETTE: The other thing that is happening now—and not just now, because it has always been there—is Indian philanthropy coming from the private sector, again similar to what we have had here. I know that the Tatas were ahead of the Ford Foundation in establishing some of their institutes and so on early on. I think there is much more of this now. You, your wife, others, have been involved in philanthropy.

NANDAN NILEKANI: Yes. One of the lessons, I think, about philanthropy that you realize is that to have philanthropists first you need to create wealth so that they can do something about it.

And also it helps if you are a first-generation entrepreneur. My father was a middle-class person, so I didn't begin my life with much money. I made money because of my business.

If it's my money, I can choose to give it away, whereas if it is inherited money then it is a lot more difficult to give it away because then you need to conserve it. So I think entrepreneurship and philanthropy are linked.

Of course, we don't yet see philanthropy of the scale the United States had in the early 20th century. You don't see the Carnegies and the Rockefellers and the Fords and the Filenes. But it is beginning to open. I am hoping that more and more of the Indian rich will become more generous for social causes.

The Tatas are a fantastic role model, because they began their philanthropy 100 years back. In fact, the Indian Institute of Science, which was set up in Bangalore, was set up by a huge donation from Jamsetji Tata. So I think they are a great role model for the rest of us in India on philanthropy.

BARBARA CROSSETTE: You have been so much plugged into this new generation and you are so much aware of the advancements of the demographic dividend that are coming up. You mentioned that if the demographic dividend is not encashed in the correct way or an effective way, there could be problems. Unrest maybe is too strong a word, but disenchantment.

NANDAN NILEKANI: It could be pretty serious.

BARBARA CROSSETTE: The Prime Minister said you now have Maoists who are threatening the center of the country, the places that you talk about, where the education is most needed.


BARBARA CROSSETTE: And even among Muslims or among Sikhs there are still restive populations.


BARBARA CROSSETTE: So this younger generation you think can really step up to these challenges, to see that everybody is included, including in the caste system?

NANDAN NILEKANI: I think it depends on us and the governance we practice. The demographic dividend can equally turn against us, because all the things we talk about, whether it is the Naxalite-Maoist thing in central India, whether you talk about the inter-religious riots, inter-ethnic riots, or even in south India.

Bombay has, for example, a lot of recent agitations about, not Indians, but Baharis coming there, or even Hindus and Christians in Mangalore. All these to my mind are manifestations of a large, seething, bubbling, young population without avenues and outlets for their energy, and not having enough jobs.

So I think creating jobs and making them contribute to the economy and become good citizens is very, very critical for the future of India.

BARBARA CROSSETTE: India has had a reputation to some degree outside for being prickly, for being very defensive about its image, and so on.

Again, one senses that among the younger people who have been around there is less of this defensiveness and more of an open kind of pride in what India has accomplished. Do you see this in the future perhaps playing into India being a bigger player in global affairs, not just with India's interests always but with a global perspective?

NANDAN NILEKANI: Absolutely. I think in post-independent India there was a lot of prickliness. Kamenin was an example of that.

Part of it had to do with the yoke of imperialism. Part of it had to do with global geopolitics, the U.S.-Soviet thing, and India had this non-alliance stuff and all that. And partly also because we were dependent on the United States for food grains; up until the late 1960s, we were importing a huge amount of food grains from the United States.

But we had the Green Revolution and became self-sufficient in food, and now we have this new young generation—they are much more open, they are much more self-confident, they are less prickly. You make a movie on India which is negative, they don't get agitated about it. I think that is very different.

But I truly believe that India can play a unique role in the world because it can be a trusted bridging country. It is probably the Asian country which is the closest to Western ideas, because of its English and all that.

At the same time, it has the world's second-largest Islamic population and it has diversity. It is an example of growth from within. It started with an import model of development. So I think India can be a bridge between the West and the Muslim world, between the West and Russia.

It certainly has a huge amount of opportunities.

BARBARA CROSSETTE: Another way that I always thought India could really be an outstanding leader is in advising and running programs for other countries in the developing world, the South-South cooperation, because India has such fantastic NGOs, foundations, and so on, that are right at the cutting edge of how to deal with the poverty and so on that India is still battling, and could play enormous roles in this regard—not giving up any of the primacy in some other fields, but I think the world depends a lot on India.

NANDAN NILEKANI: Oh, absolutely. I think one of the things is that when we look at a lot of the challenges in the developing world—the challenges of poverty, population, lack of good public services, health, all that—I think if India can learn to fix them, then those solutions can be taken out, and in some sense are probably more relevant in Africa or somewhere else.

And people will probably accept them much better, because they will say, "Okay, this is stuff which has worked in a similar environment," as opposed to something which has come from a more Western background which may not work in that environment.

BARBARA CROSSETTE: But India has already done this. There are so many NGOs, as you also talk in your book about, and individuals who know what to do.

The question is just, as you say, putting it into practice and making it work.

In Ghana, I've seen Mahindra tractors made into little ambulances for places where there are no roads. I mean Indians are very creative. And so they have already done this.

NANDAN NILEKANI: But it is still a question of scale. While India has a huge number of NGOs, over a million of them, they still operate on a very small scale. To really transform a billion people you need these small-scale changes happening on a very large scale. It's not enough to have pockets of that. The challenge is how do we have small-scale changes but in a large way.

BARBARA CROSSETTE: Before we finish, tell a little about yourself, how you got to be who you are and where you are, from your childhood up. You talked about your father being middle class.

NANDAN NILEKANI: I grew up in an Indian middle-class family in Bangalore, and then actually I moved to a smaller town called Dharwad, which is in the same state as Bangalore is, but much smaller. So I grew up in an environment which wasn't particularly wealthy, but which did place a high stress on education and knowledge.

I was very fortunate that after I finished my schooling I managed to get admission to the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay, which is a very prestigious place. In those days, that was the only upward-mobility track for young Indians. If you could get into these places, then you made it.

When I came out, I met a bunch of people under the leadership of Mr. Narayana Murthy and co-founded Infosys. I have been there now for the last 30 years.

I feel that I had a ringside seat in the changes in India. And also, I feel that a lot of work I have accomplished has to do with serendipity, it has to do with being at the right place at the right time with the right set of people. So I hesitate to take too much credit for my achievements. I believe the environment has been also very fortuitous.

Therefore, I take the view that I should use my time, apart from what I do in my business, to make a difference to India. You know, you may wonder why this guy who runs a business is writing a book on India. But it is really part of my way of saying, "Okay, let's get on with the task at hand."

BARBARA CROSSETTE: How much has this been being a southerner, from South India, as distinct from North India.

NANDAN NILEKANI: Yes, I think the south Indian thing has a number of things.

One is English was much better accepted. Clearly, we had the advantage of access to English. I have a small incident, anecdote, in my book about I went to a school run by Jesuits. We had a very good Father. He used to live in England. He came back with tapes from the Royal Theatre. We had Alec Guinness and John Gielgud's Shakespearean plays. He used to make us listen to those plays. So I really got exposed to a lot of great culture there in the school. I think that's one part.

The other part is I think the part of the country I grew up in didn't really have the challenges of partition, we didn't really have the lacerations of partition. So it was more secluded from a lot of the challenges.

And also, I think my sense was that southern India had fought its caste battles earlier. To that extent, it doesn't have the same amount of caste politics. It's there—I'm not saying it's not there—but it is at a much subdued level as opposed to in the north where it is very visceral.

BARBARA CROSSETTE: So, finally, what is your hope for the coming election? How will the government shape up—not necessarily who the leader will be, but what's your prognosis?

NANDAN NILEKANI: I think, first of all, this election doesn't seem to have a grand theme. It seems to be a series of small local elections on local issues.

But I think the real thing is, with the challenges that we have, is there going to be a vote for a stable government or not? Are the two national parties, the Congress and the BJP, going to reduce their seats or are people going to say, "We can't really have too much of a coalition; we need one fulcrum," and therefore are they going to increase the seats?

And finally, development will be a big issue in this election, because the general sense is, if you look at the last few state elections, those chief ministers who have been low-key but development-oriented have won again and again. So is there something happening in the Indian voter who is saying, "I am willing to work for somebody who guarantees me a better life and I am not going to be swayed so much by religion or caste?"

If that switch happens, I think that will be a huge movement forward.

BARBARA CROSSETTE: It's an interesting point you are making, because it's another side to what you said about the Indian being much more aware, even down at the local level, so that a local voter in a small, dusty town with no road can still have a national interest and heart.


BARBARA CROSSETTE: They think "If development is here, development is there, so we want to put the people in power all the way up.

NANDAN NILEKANI: So I think this election is going to be extremely important. The reason is also that India cannot afford five years of dysfunctional governance anymore, because in five years the demographic dividend will become so much bigger, and if we don't tap into it, then the problems will also become bigger. Therefore, which government comes into power in the next five years and how effective they are in bringing change is really going to decide the future for a long time.

BARBARA CROSSETTE: Thanks very much.

NANDAN NILEKANI: Thank you, Barbara.

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