Nandan Nilekani – The Identity Alchemist

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It would have been hard, in the heady days when Infosys hit the big league, to imagine Nandan Nilekani pulling off anything off that magnitude ever again.

After all, for a handful of technology professionals with no experience of entrepreneurship to set up one of the world’s most successful software companies ever, and to create unimaginable wealth in a single generation – Nilekani’s own net worth is upwards of USD 1.3 billion while Infosys is currently valued at USD 7 billion – seems incomprehensible. To do it ethically, while building one of the world’s largest and best-respected institutions, seems the stuff of cinematic imagination.

But even those incredible achievements of three decades paled when Nilekani – then co-chairman of the board – stepped down from Infosys in 2009 to take on arguably one of the most challenging jobs on the planet: creating the government’s UID project that would give a unique identity number – in effect, a social security number – to every resident Indian. With over a billion people to cast under this colossal biometric data net, Nilekani had on his hands a project on a scale unparalleled anywhere in the world, and despite hitches – largely ones of political making – he pulled it off: over 400 million cards have already been issued and have become the default identity tool across the country. The project isn’t complete – there’s over 600 million more to go – but the efficiency with which the project has been executed has left no doubt of its success in the minds of even the most sceptical.

Nilekani – an IIT Mumbai electrical engineer – is an unlikely hero; he’s restrained, unfamiliar with the workings of the political system and, as a government appointee rather than elected official, always aware that his mandate doesn’t come from the people. That hasn’t stopped him doing the job, but increasingly, it seems evident that this is a man with a capacity to create incredible transformation – in a nation with a fervent need for it.

As rumours do the rounds that Nilekani has finally decided to take the plunge into politics with next year’s general election, public reaction has been enough to indicate there will be no shortage of supporters if and when he does make the leap.

His influence – in industry, in governance, and even internationally, including at the World Economic Forum in Davos – cannot be overstated; Forbes Asia named him Businessman of the Year in 2006 and Thomas Friedman acknowledges that the idea for his celebrated book The World Is Flat came out of a conversation with Nilekani.

If he does contest the elections, he may pull off his greatest miracle yet – giving back hope in the system to a country whose deficit in the trust department is greater than all its crises put together!

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