Billionaire Nandan Nilekani tells Bangalore voters he can't be bought
India's richest candidate for parliament strolls IT capital promising to shake up corrupt system
He is the richest candidate running in India's national election, with a personal fortune of over US$1.2 billion.
He co-founded one of the nation's best-known IT companies, Infosys. At 58, Nandan Nilekani is comfortable sharing a stage with the likes of Microsoft's Bill Gates and Google's Eric Schmidt, and schmoozing at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland.
But now he is trudging through the dusty streets of his home town, Bangalore, shaking hands and knocking on doors as he runs for a seat in India's parliament. He represents a new kind of candidate - an urban professional who rose on his own merit, not through the country's corruption-prone political system.
Nilekani's is one of the most keenly watched contests in India's election, which began this month and runs through mid-May. About 30 per cent of India's 814 million voters are urban, an important force at a time when many voters are angry about corruption and the economy.
Bangalore voters head to the polls today.
Nilekani has started campaigning every day at dawn, visiting parks in this southern Indian city, glad-handing sweaty joggers, interrupting Om-chanting yoga practitioners and disrupting soccer and badminton games.
"I am here to work for you," Nilekani says to them. Young men and women stop to stare; some click the mogul's picture. But the adulation quickly gives way to complaints.
An elderly gentleman wags a finger and warns Nilekani not to disappear like other politicians do after elections. Street sweepers line up to grouse about their unpaid salaries. One man shouts at him to repair the local playground. Another complains about the shortage of water. A group of veiled Muslim women point to heaps of uncollected trash in the park.
"Politics is the biggest lever of change; it is the key to everything else - jobs, urban governance, safety nets for the poor, infrastructure," Nilekani said. "If the country's politics become dysfunctional, everything suffers. That is why I am here with my problem-solving skills. I can bring about a new kind of clean politics that the voters are now ready for."
Nilekani is running as the candidate of the governing Congress party, which has slid in the polls after corruption scandals. He tells voters he is different.
"I am not in politics to make money," Nilekani said. "I have already made money the honest way; I am incorruptible."
Nilekani's fortune helps, but does not give him an outsized advantage; Indian law limits candidates to spending no more than US$116,000 on their races.
Bangalore, the holy land of India's IT revolution, appears to be fertile ground for Nilekani's message of change. About 62 per cent of Bangalore's population is under 25 years old, compared with 54 per cent country-wide.
"There is a feeling in Bangalore that the interests of the IT sector and the new aspirations of millions of Indian youth are not represented adequately in parliament by our old-style politicians, who are moved only by appeals to caste and religion," said Harish Bijoor, a friend of Nilekani's.
"If Nilekani wins, it will open the gates to a whole new breed of urban professionals in politics."
Nilekani says getting back to his roots has been rewarding.
But his global clout may not mean much to some residents of Bangalore.
"I don't know much about Nandan Nilekani. I hear he is very rich," said Suresh Babu, 48, a small shopkeeper. "Can such a big man understand our poor people's problems of water shortages and broken sewer pipes?"