Nandan Nilekani
Nandan Nilekani Reuters

Harkening back to Ross Perot’s independent, memorable and largely self-financed run at the U.S. presidency in 1992 and 1996, the current elections in India feature two very wealthy former tech executives who are seeking seats in the New Delhi Parliament, canvassing for votes on the premise of their business successes, corporate governance, transparency and opposition to corruption. V. Balakrishnan and Nandan Nilekani, former senior executives at information technology-outsourcing giant Infosys Ltd. (NYSE:INFY), are running for seats in the southern tech hub city of Bangalore.

Indians have witnessed a long stream of actors, actresses, musicians, athletes and other celebrities running for Parliament over the decades, but Indian media speculated that this election marks the first time that two such prominent technology executives (a wholly new kind of "celebrity" and public figure) have taken the leap into the rough-and-tumble of the country’s politics.

Nilekani, 58, a billionaire and former chief executive and co-founder of Infosys, is running as a member of the Congress Party in Bangalore-South. Balakrishnan, 50, Infosys’ former chief financial officer and a multi-millionaire in his own right, is challenging for a seat in Bangalore-Central as a member of the upstart Aam Aadmi Party, an anti-corruption third party formed in November 2012. Neither has ever held public office before.

Nilekani quit Infosys five years ago to form the Aadhar Project, a biometric endeavor set up for the government to count and identify every person in the nation, while Balakrishnan resigned late last year, one of many Infosys executives who left the firm in the wake of the return of co-founder Narayana Murthy to the executive chairmanship last summer.

According to reports in Indian media, Balakrishnan and Nilekani, two figures who are as well known in Bangalore as movie stars and athletes, have adopted the common touch in their campaigns – by, among other things, wearing ordinary clothes and personally meeting with people on the streets and literally knocking on doors in their constituencies. They also have a vast array of former business colleagues providing digital/technical assistance on their journeys to political power. In addition, unlike many Indian political candidates, both ex-tech gurus have opened up their bank books to the public to reveal their wealth – Nilekani and his wife carry a net worth of some $1.26 billion, tied up mostly in Infosys shares, which reportedly makes him the wealthiest parliamentary candidate in India. As with Perot and New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, such wealth supposedly precludes the temptation of bribes and corruption.

Vivek Wadhwa, an Indian-American technology entrepreneur and a fellow at the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford Law School, praised the entry of the ex-Infosys heavyweights into India’s political jungle. “I think this is a very good thing to have professionals in government,” Wadhwa said in an interview. “The difference between the celebrities and business executives such as these is that the executives are ethical and competent. They aren't doing this for ego, but to clean up the corrupt government and bring the same standards of governance with which they ran their companies to the country.”

But neither Nilekani nor Balakrishan is a shoo-in for election. As in the United States, dislodging incumbent lawmakers in India is quite difficult.

Nandan Nilekani: A Billionaire Novice

Despite his enormous wealth, Nilekani faces stiff opposition from the incumbent MP of Bangalore South, Ananth Kumar, a former aviation minister and member of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, who has occupied the seat for five straight terms. Nilekani is playing up his middle-class background as a way of overcoming the gulf between the average Indian and someone who has more money than they will ever see in a hundred lifetimes. "Every one of you deserves the same chance that I got, and my mission is to expand job opportunities for India's young people," Nilekani told a crowd of cheering students at a local college. "I want to impact India's future, I want to push through transformation at a much faster pace. If half a million people [in my constituency] vote for me, I can."

Regarding his wealth, Nilekani boasted: "I haven't made any money illegally [nor] hid it in investments outside the country. Nothing is hidden in someone else's bank account.” That one quote represented an extraordinary statement by an aspiring lawmaker in a country where literally hundreds of MPs have faced (or are facing) a multitude of criminal charges, ranging from accepting bribes all the way up to murder. "For 29 years, I was with Infosys. Then I spent five years for the Aadhar Project. The next few years will be for politics of change," Nilekani spelled out to Indian broadcaster NDTV.

Nilekani’s wife, Rohini, has joined him on the campaign circuit, but only after some personal soul-searching. "It was a very difficult decision [for him to quit business and join politics] because obviously it is a game-changer for the city [of Bangalore] and the country, but it is very hard at a personal level. But the right thing to do is to support him. And then I didn't look back," Rohini told the CNN-IBN network.

Nilekani has stated that his three core policy issues are educational reforms, power and electrical generation infrastructure improvements and women’s safety. He also addressed the challenges posed by India’s rapid urbanization. "Problems in [metropolitan areas]… across the country are generic, as they are a result of relentless migration from towns and villages” he told the Indo-Asian News Service. “Rapid urbanization and lack of timely investment in civic amenities have made existing infrastructure inadequate. I intend to address these issues head on and find solutions as I am a problem-solver.”

And if one needs technological proof of the interest that Nilekani’s candidacy has drawn, consider that Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) itself said that over the past few weeks, “Nilekani” has been searched on its portal more than any other politician or party in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, which includes Bangalore.

Jonah Blank, Ph.D., a senior political scientist at the RAND Corp. and an expert on South Asian affairs, praised Nilekani.

“[He] has already proven that he takes public service very seriously indeed: the Unique Identification Authority [Aadhar] project-- which he created and administered-- may do more to improve the lives of millions of impoverished citizens than any government program in many years," her said. "Nilekani is definitely in a different category than most businessmen-turned-politicos. His Unique Identification Authority program aims to give the poorest citizens a way to receive official payments, rations and other benefits without paying rapacious and corrupt middlemen. In today's political climate, that should serve his prospects well."

Nilekani has also gained the support of a number of prominent Karnataka literary figures (a strong endorsement in a region of India that greatly reveres men and women of letters). India Today reported that Girish Karnad, the author and longtime critic of right-wing Hindu nationalists, even campaigned for Nilekani, by knocking on doors with Rohini. "We have never had a candidate like Nandan before in Bangalore,” Karnad said. “He has created a great company in Infosys, a platform in Aadhar and brings many skill-sets needed to change politics. We must all support him." Other literary personages embracing Nilekani include the writer K. Marulasiddappa, movie actor Mukhya Mantri Chandru and writer G.K Govind Rao.

Nilekani has criticized his opponent, the incumbent Ananth Kumar, by alleging the latter focuses too much on foreign policy issues rather than topics that directly affect voters in Bangalore. "He keeps talking about Line of Control issues [border disputes between India and Pakistan in Kashmir], about Maldives [islands], and about 'national security', rather than about Bangalore,” Nilekani thundered. “National security matters, but is he not concerned about the day-to-day economic security of our people, of our women and children? Why aren't we talking about the very basic water problems, transport issues, the issues with jobs in the constituency? As the sitting MP of this constituency, isn't he responsible for these issues?"

A debate between the candidates last week descended into chaos and had to be scrapped after supporters from both sides verbally attacked one another over a number of minor issues, including what language the parley should be conducted in (English or Kannada, the native tongue of Karnataka). Things deteriorated shortly thereafter into a screaming match and near physical violence.

V. Balakrishnan: An Anti-Corruption Multi-Millionaire

Balakrishnan, who said he quit the business world because he was excited by the rise of the AAP and its potential of enacting real change in the country, called corruption “the biggest tax that Indians have to pay.” He also faces a formidable opponent, the incumbent BJP official P. C. Mohan. Rejecting both Congress and BJP as representing vested interests who do not address the needs of the public, Balakrishnan declared on the campaign trail: "If India gets clean, honest politicians, governance itself is not rocket science." In an interview with NDTV television network, Balakrishnan compared his former life as a top executive with his new aspirations in politics. “Ultimately, whether it is corporate world or politics, you have a set of stakeholders and you have to appeal to them, understand the issues and try and solve it to the maximum extent. That is what it is all about," he said.

According to the Financial Express, Balakrishnan employs a relatively small campaign team of 15 to 20 core staff-members (including some former Infosys employees) and has established a website and social media campaign. Balakrishnan’s campaign apparently combines high-tech with common-touch humility (he has, for example, promised not to bombard voters with a high-pressure social media messages, an apparent dig at Nilekani).

Indeed, on his rather simple website, Balakrishan states that his principal platforms comprise booting out corruption and establishing clean governance (mirroring the AAP’s basic party line), without going into much detail. “The current political [parties want the] status quo,” said a statement on the website. “AAP is unconventional but provides an alternative.”

Citizen Matters, a local Bangalore newspaper, reported that Balakrishnan has the support of numerous unpaid young volunteers, including students, techies and entrepreneurs, evoking an air of informality and dedication. Virtually all of them hammer away at the message of AAP founder Arvind Kejriwal that India must eliminate corruption.

Balakrishan also noted that the private sector must create jobs for India rather than the state. “Government is incapable of creating jobs,” he told Citizen Matters. “We need to create at least 1.2 crore [12 million] jobs per year [in India], therefore we need 10 lakh [1 million] jobs a month. Once upon a time our growth rate was close to 8 to 10 percent [per annum], but today we grow at 5 percent. We need [the] participation of private parties and a transparent ecosystem, where honest enterprises can start their own business and flourish and create job opportunities.”

Balakrishnan also referred to his personal blessings in life. “I [have] everything in life. I have enough money, but I wanted to do something beyond Infosys,” he said. “I want to clean the system. I don’t need money, power but I want to change the system.”

But Balakrishnan’s opponent in the race, Mohan, shrugged off his rival’s sterling corporate background, saying the enormous popularity of BJP leader and prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi will trump any challengers. "Today, all sections of [the] people want Narendra Modi as prime minister of this country... even the IT sector also, they are going to vote for BJP," Mohan said.

The Press Trust of India reported that Balakrishnan faces long odds of winning the Bangalore-Central seat. Not only must he defeat the entrenched incumbent, Mohan of BJP, but he also must tackle the Congress candidate, youth wing chief Rizwan Arshad, who reportedly was handpicked by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi himself.

Separately, the candidates’ former boss and mentor, Infosys executive chairman Narayana Murthy, has wished Balakrishnan and Nilekani well in their political endeavors, but has refused to endorse either man, nor will he campaign for them. In an interview on CNN-IBN television, Murthy said: “I think getting into politics is also entrepreneurial… We must salute [Balakrishnan and Nilekani] because we need changes and innovations even in politics.” But he added: “I am apolitical… I have to treat every political party with equal respect.”

Sumit Ganguly, professor of political science and director of the Center for American and Global Security at the Indiana University School of Global and International Studies in Bloomington, commented in an interview that both Balakrishnan and Nilekani are “respected and able” men. “I suspect that they chose to [run for political office] because they felt that they could make a difference in the quality of governance,” Ganguly noted. “Also, bear in mind that Nilekani is already the brains behind the unique ID program in the country. He may have gotten a taste of what it is like to wield political power.” Ganguly added he thinks that the public could support them on the basis of name recognition alone. “However, their ability to stay in government will depend in considerable measure upon their ability to deliver once in office,” he said.

Wadhwa noted that, as reflected by the emergence of the AAP as a viable third party, the outrage over corruption and incompetence in India has reached a tipping point. “Indian politics badly needs an upgrade. People are fed up of having their leaders steal from them all the time and treat them with disdain,” Wadhwa said. “I hope [either] Balakrishnan [or] Nilekani rise to the level of prime minister one day.”

Blank concluded that both Nilekani and Balakrishnan will likely benefit from a popular anger at entrenched politicians who seem to care little for their constituents. “This is an election in which incumbents are running scared," he added.