The return of Nandan Nilekani
Nandan Nilekani, 62, has returned to the company he co-founded when he was 26.
That’s a full circle for a man considered the last great chief executive officer (CEO) of Infosys Ltd. Friends and colleagues speak of his tremendous strategic and technological vision. If N.R. Narayana Murthy was all about “excellence in execution”, Nilekani was about the “big picture”.
But Nilekani’s most significant ability was reinvention.
In 2007, when he had been CEO for barely five years—his predecessor, Murthy, spent almost 20 years on the job—and Infosys looked like it was on track to catch up with Tata Consultancy Services Ltd in terms of revenue, he stepped aside to make way for another co-founder S. (Kris) Gopalakrishnan, at Murthy’s bidding. Murthy said at the time that Gopalakrishnan was senior to Nilekani, and had graciously agreed to being superseded in 2002 because the company needed someone like Nilekani as CEO then.
By then, Nilekani had already become Thomas Friedman’s muse—it was Nilekani’s famous quote “the world is flat” that sparked Friedman’s eponymous bestseller. The book, Nilekani said once, opened doors for him everywhere. CEOs of top US corporations who had been difficult to meet (on sales calls) reached out to him and asked him to talk to their people.
And by then, he had already had his first brush with public policy. He had been part of S.M. Krishna’s ill-fated Bangalore Agenda Task Force that, while it did a lot for the city, became a victim of politics. He subsequently became part of a small group of professionals whose ideas and work resulted in what would eventually become the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (now the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation).
So, in 2007, when he became co-chairman of Infosys, he decided to write a book. The result was Imagining India, a book on the country’s possibilities. One of the ideas he discussed in it was a unique ID that could make the delivery of government services more efficient.
In 2009, after the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) returned to power, it tapped Nilekani. Murthy has let it be known that the government tapped him first and he suggested Nilekani, but it was probably Nilekani’s old friend Montek Singh Ahluwalia who engineered his entry into the government.
The next phase of Nilekani’s life is well-documented: Aadhaar (coincidentally, a Supreme Court ruling on Thursday establishing privacy as a fundamental right is likely to impact the programme); the political battle he had to fight in the UPA to see it through; the decision to enter politics and the loss in the 2014 Lok Sabha election; and the desire to see his idea through that saw him reach out to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and convince him. Since 2014, Nilekani has been working on EkStep, a technology solution to address India’s huge education problem. He has also been involved with IndiaStack, an effort to build software for digital India.
The opposition to Aadhaar has made Nilekani a controversial figure in some circles and he has, in recent years, had to deal with several allegations on how his association with the government enriched Infosys and how some of IndiaStack’s members stand to benefit from the seemingly “public” work it is doing.
When he took over as chair of UIDAI, Nilekani cut off all links with Infosys and in 2013, when Murthy returned to Infosys and reached out to Nilekani asking him to return, he refused.
This time though, he seems to have been swayed by arguments that he should return.
Nilekani has always been close to Murthy—the two of them have always had rooms next to each other at Infosys—without being an acolyte (a person who has known both for decades describes the relationship as “complex”), and people close to both say he was very upset and angry at the board’s letter blaming Murthy for former CEO Vishal Sikka’s exit.
It is a different Infosys that awaits Nilekani. Can he help the company reinvent itself for its own second innings?