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Nandan Nilekani’s second innings?

LiveMint logoLiveMint 24-08-2017 Staff Writer

There’s a great likelihood, barring last-minute second thoughts, of Nandan M. Nilekani, 62, returning to the company he co-founded when he was 26.

That’s a full circle for a man considered the last great CEO of Infosys Ltd. Friends and colleagues speak of his tremendous strategic and technology 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 catching 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 Murthy said at the time that Kris was senior to Nilekani, and had graciously agreed to being superseded in 2002 because the company needed someone like Nilekani as CEO then.

Also read: Infosys row: Chorus grows for Seshasayee’s exit, Nandan Nilekani’s entry

By then, Nilekani had already become Thomas Friedman’s muse—it was Nilekani’s famous quote “the world is flat” that sparked Friedman’s bestseller. The book, Nilekani said, 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, Nilekani 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.

So, in 2007, when he became co-chairman of Infosys, he decided to write a book. The result was Reimagining 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 it 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 privacy on Thursday will have a bearing on its future); 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.

Also read: Narayana Murthy’s battle is for the soul of Infosys

Since 2014, Nilekani has been working on Ek Step, a technology solution to address India’s huge education problem. He has also been involved with India Stack, 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 India Stack’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, 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.

If Nilekani does return, it will be a different Infosys that awaits him.

Can he help the company reinvent itself for its own second innings?

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