On 18 August, the mood was decidedly gloomy at a hurriedly convened press conference where a visibly downcast board member Ravi Venkatesan and outgoing chairman R. Seshasayee fielded questions from reporters.
A week on, the auditorium at the Infosys campus was abuzz with palpable energy as the cameras flashed at co-founder and newly appointed chairman Nandan Nilekani.
As the saying goes, cometh the hour, cometh the man.
While Nilekani adopted a tough, no-nonsense attitude and ignored some questions from the media that he felt did not merit a response, he came across as just the man that Infosys needs now to steer it through tumultuous times.
“I’m here because there was nobody else," he joked, explaining why he had come back to the company that he co-founded a little over 36 years ago. “I don’t know whether I’m the highest common factor or the lowest common denominator, but whatever be the reason, I’m here."
Nilekani was sparing with the jokes, preferring to stick to scripted remarks, artfully dodging questions around whether Infosys will disclose the full probe report into the company’s controversial acquisition of Israeli firm Panaya Ltd in 2015.
“When you ask such a question, I believe you haven’t been listening to what I said," Nilekani said impatiently to one reporter who repeated an earlier question.
At times, he swatted aside questions with a touch of disdain. “What kind of a question is that?" he said dismissively when asked if there would be more exits from the board.
While Nilekani’s bristling approach did not go down well with some reporters, he did convey an important message: he has the important task of rebuilding Infosys on his hands and he doesn’t want to waste any time going about his task.
Earlier in the day, Nilekani presented a less combative approach, and answered questions from investors with aplomb.
To over 600 participants including analysts, investors and journalists, all of whom had dialled in to listen to the new non-executive chairman, Nilekani came across as a stern headmaster who means business. “I have to see that I bring down the noise in the system so that everybody goes back to work," said Nilekani, when asked about his immediate priorities.
Displaying his characteristic wit at times—“You expect me to give this job (of CEO) to a machine-learning algorithm?"—Nilekani seems to have hit the road running. He said he had already spoken to some of Infosys’s largest clients and reassured them that it is business as usual.
At times he appeared defensive during the investor call, especially when pressed about the board’s scathing six-page letter last week blaming co-founder N.R. Narayana Murthy for Sikka’s exit.
When one analyst repeatedly asked him whether the board will offer an apology to Murthy, Nilekani shot back, saying, “Don’t put words in my mouth."
A Mumbai-based analyst at a domestic brokerage firm said, “He hasn’t lost one bit of the old Nandan we faced during the calls in the past. Calm and composed, more authoritative. This is understandable as he has worked with the government," he added, referring to Nilekani’s stint at the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI). The analyst didn’t want to be named.
Another analyst echoed the sentiment, saying Nilekani’s return has had the desired effect of calming stakeholders.
“It (the call) was like: ‘I have arrived and so you don’t have to worry. Let us do our job and we will share with you things in due course’," said a Mumbai-based analyst at a foreign brokerage firm.
When an analyst asked him if Sikka’s strategy on new-age projects will continue, Nilekani turned to the company’s chief financial officer Ranganath Mavinakere and said, “Ranga, we need to note down all these points for I need to understand this."
“Noted sir," was the quiet response from company veteran Mavinakere.
And, among other things, Nilekani is expected to clamp down on leaks to the media that have contributed to the chaos at Infosys that led up to Sikka’s resignation. Already, Nilekani has asked his colleagues to not engage with the media, according to an executive who didn’t want to be named.
The man who has helped give more than a billion Indians a unique 12-digit identity number clearly means business. And Infosys could not have asked for a better wartime leader.