Unexpected Indian opposition members: IT executives square up in the war on corruption

A clash of Bangalore IT execs may be about to make compelling political theatre

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The Independent Online

The southern Indian city of Bangalore is famed for several things, among them its pool of IT talent, its cosmopolitan vibe and its wretched, endless traffic jams. Now this city of 10 million people could also play host to one of the more intriguing clashes in India’s upcoming general election.

The upstart Aam Aadmi, or common man, party (AAP), which recently stunned both its supporters and opponents by winning power in the Delhi state election, is looking to Bangalore to expand its base.

As the party prepares to contest 300 constituencies in the national polls and challenge the ruling Congress party and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), many believe Bangalore, with a largely educated population and where I spent the weekend, could prove to be one of its most rewarding locations.

In recent days, the Indian media has been fizzing with excitement following an announcement by a respected corporate executive, V Balakrishnan, that he was stepping down from his position with Bangalore-based IT company Infosys to join the AAP.

Mr Balakrishnan, who had served as both a director and chief financial officer of the company, is one of several such senior figures from the corporate world who have in recent days announced their support for the 18-month old party. But the particular excitement stems from speculation that he may find himself competing in Bangalore against the very founder of Infosys, software billionaire Nandan Nilekani, who is close to the Congress party. A clash of the IT execs would make compelling political theatre.

First things first. Mr Balakrishnan told me had been taken the decision to join the AAP because he believed tackling corruption was one of India’s most pressing compelling priorities. It was up there with kick-starting the economy, which has been trudging along about four-and-a-half per cent growth.

“The Delhi election result was a big turning point for the country,” he explained. “I spoke with lots of young people who were very happy that there was an alternative party for them to vote for.”

He also said he believed that the AAP could make an impact across India. He said the Indian middle-class was deeply frustrated with repeated corruption scandals, the scale of which had never been seen before. The country was crying out for clean government.

Yet asked about what role he might play in the AAP and whether he might contest the election, Mr Balakrishnan said he had not yet met with the party’s senior officials. “I am keeping all my options open.” Questioned about a possible showdown with his former Infosys colleague, Mr Nilekani, he said there had been a lot of excitable reports.

“It’s too early to think such a thing could happen. I have to decide what role I will play,” he said diplomatically.

For his part, Mr Nilekani appears to keeping things very close to his chest. The 58-year-old software pioneer, who helped inspire Thomas Friedman’s 2005 treatise on globalisation, The World Is Flat, has for the last couple of years headed a government scheme to provide a unique identity number to each of India’s 1.2bn citizens.

In recent days, he is reported to have been in discussions with senior leaders of the ruling Congress party about contesting the Bangalore South constituency for the party. Among the officials he is said to have spoken to were the chief minister of the state of Karnataka, K Siddaramaiah, and the Congress’ state head, G Parameshwara. When I called Mr Nilekani to ask him about the reports, he said he was currently unable to talk about the matter. “It’s a delicate time.”

I’d gone to Bangalore at the weekend for the wedding of a friend. Before the church service on Saturday afternoon, I met another acquaintance, a locally-based journalist, for drink. He took me to the Windsor Pub in the city’s Vasanthnagar district and there, over glasses of the locally-brewed Kingfisher beer, outlined the state’s political scene.

Karnataka, currently controlled by the Congress party, returns 28 MPs to the national parliament, three of them from the city of Bangalore itself. Corruption has been a major issue in elections and three years ago when the activist movement India Against Corruption – in many ways a precursor to the AAP – held rallies in the city, they were well attended. Furthermore, he said, an earlier anti-corruption party, the Lok Satta, had been well received in the state.

Yet even though he believed there was a lot of support in the city for AAP, my friend was doubtful this could translate into actual MPs. The city’s middle-class historically had turned out in low numbers for elections and the younger generation appeared divided, with many entranced by Narendra Modi of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. “The AAP has not had enough time to get ready,” he said.

Despite my friend’s doubts, the AAP is confident of following up on its break-through in the Indian capital. A spokeswoman for the party, Shazia Ilmi, said: “People wrote our obituary before we took [Delhi]. We proved there is a wish for clean politics.”