Saturday, March 22, 2014

Why Nilekani isn't imagining India, but Bangalore

By Swapan Dasgupta

In a curious and unintended sort of way, the election campaign of Nandan Nilekani in Bengaluru South has encapsulated the story of the Congress Party in the 2014 general election.

The allusion is not to the Nilekani family’s Rs 7,700 crore of self-made personal fortune which evokes admiration and some understandable envy. Nor is it centred on an aam-aadmi type outrage over a synergy between entrepreneurship and politics. Nilekani is a welcome addition to the political class and should be an inspiration to other successful professionals—and not merely lawyers—to dip their toes in the murky waters of public life. Indian politics is in need of a cultural revolution and talented individuals such as Nilekani can contribute to the process—even if it involves sacrificing a modicum of self-respect and issuing character certificates to a vacuous ‘yuva josh’.  

No, what is significant about Nilekani’s electoral debut is his sales pitch. As opposed to his Infosys days when he set about establishing the global credentials of an Indian company, Nilekani is now singing the virtues of what is derisively called ‘parish pump’ politics. Maybe all politics is local but it is nevertheless surprising that the themes Nilekani has chosen to highlight are “water, roads, traffic management, garbage removal and creating opportunities.”

The surprise is not on account of Nilekani applying his self-professed “problem-solving” skills to civic issues but that he chose a Lok Sabha election to peddle them. A well-informed person who has been grappling with complex Constitutional issues during his stewardship of the Aadhar scheme, Nilekani couldn’t be unaware that his pet subjects for this election are concerns of the state government and municipal authorities. In 1996-97, another illustrious Kannadiga, H.D. Deve Gowda was often described as the Prime Minister of Karnataka. Is Nilekani following his footsteps and aspiring to be the first MP to sit in the imposing Vidhan Soudha?

At the risk of flippancy, Nilekani’s ‘local’ campaign plank is about as relevant as those of the radical Left who contest student’s union elections in Jawaharlal Nehru University to register solidarity with the Palestinian resistance to Israel.  

Nilekani is no political innocent—his stint at the UIDAI has taught him more politics than he would care to admit. His decision to focus on the local problems of Bengaluru South is grounded in careful calculation. In fact, it amounts to a candid confession that the Congress Party finds the projection of national issues a grave liability.

In the past, Congress candidates, particularly in southern India, fought Lok Sabha elections on the shoulders of its national leadership—more particularly the legacy of Indira-amma. Today, Congress stalwarts believe that their only hope of bucking the fierce resentment against the UPA Government lies in somehow pointing the finger elsewhere. What Nilekani’s campaign demonstrates is that the Congress has abandoned hopes of forming a government at the Centre. Prominent individuals fighting on the ‘hand’ symbol are fighting a rearguard battle to somehow win their own seats by singing local tunes. The national jingle is proving very unappealing.   

Not since I.K. Gujral led a crumbling United Front into the general election of 1998 has an incumbent government—and one that retained a parliamentary majority till the very last day—given up the ghost so completely. The Congress began its election campaign two months ago flaunting Rahul Gandhi as its new, youthful leader. That aesthetically well-crafted campaign is now in tatters and has been so after the disastrous Times Now interview that exposed the heir apparent as a disconnected amateur. Far from being the new hope, the shehzada  is now an object of mockery. Changing course mid-stream, Congress has been reduced to competing for the anti-Narendra Modi mindspace with the flamboyant theatrics of Arvind Kejriwal.

The chatter is over Modi contesting two seats; for Congressmen even entering the race is proving injurious to political health.  Between the defection of a Purandeswari, the reluctance of a Manish Tiwari to return to Ludhiana and the sabbatical of P. Chidambaram runs a common narrative: the fear of not merely defeat, but humiliation.   

It is also the crafty sub-text of a brilliant individual’s journey from Imagining India to contemplating Bengaluru’s garbage disposal, a journey from the sublime to the expedient. 

Sunday Times of India, March 23, 2014


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