View from India: Nilekani returns to Infy

Numeric 26 is the reverse of 62: nothing unusual in that, except that it neatly sums up Nandan Mohan Nilekani’s career graph. At age 26 he joined up with NR Narayana Murthy and a team of six engineers. Together, they cofounded Infosys. Under the leadership of Murthy, the Indian software outsourcing giant Infy (as it’s fondly known) grew multifold to become the bellweather of Indian IT.

Now at 62, Nilekani has made a comeback as the non-executive chairman of Infosys. Chairman of the board R. Seshasayee, directors Prof. Jeffrey Lehman and Prof. John Etchemendy are among others who have stepped down. Ravi Venkatesan, who has also stepped down from his role as co-chairman, will continue on the board.

With Nilekani’s return, life is a full circle, and what is interesting is its course. At 62, one is expected to sit back in contentment, but life after 60 is proving to be a second innings for Nilekani.

When Nilekani took charge last week at the corporate headquarters in Bangalore, he announced to the media that he will roll out a new strategy which will be made public by October.

2009 was a turning point when the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh invited the technocrat to join the cabinet ministry to steward a technology-based biometric programme. Branded as Aadhaar, the programme comes under the umbrella of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI). As a digital identification for citizens, the biometric programme has recorded the fingerprints and iris scans of more than one billion Indians and is, by far, the world’s largest biometric database.

It was a new challenge, but Nilekani was quick to reinvent himself and made the project a success, earning him the Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI). Nevertheless, he resigned from the post of chairman of the UIDAI in early 2014. This time, the political scene beckoned him. It was again an unknown frontier to him.

Nilekani contested in the 16th Lok Sabha election from Bangalore on a Congress ticket and lost. Yet his charisma and personal touch have been indelibly stamped on to the political landscape of India. Although Nilekani is a congressman, Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose him to don the role of an advisor to the National Payments Corporation of India which has launched a drive for a less-cash economy after demonetisation. Nilekani would most likely have continued in this role, had things not taken a turn last week urging him to retrace his steps to where the journey began.

The Infy journey which was interrupted in 2009 has been revived now and today it’s a different Infosys. The iconic leader has a complex task at hand, but he has taken it up because he plans to set a long-term strategy for the company along with short-term measures, such as hiring a chief executive officer (CEO) and becoming a bridge between the board and Murthy.

Rarely does the fate of an organisation depend on one person. Infy and Nilekani could probably be singled out. Perhaps this is a unique scenario when 12 key domestic institutional investors (DIIs) had given the thumbs up to the idea of having Nilekani back in Infy. Their conviction proved right, because even as Nilekani stepped into Infy, its stocks - which had tumbled down - rose by 4.60 per cent in the morning trade yesterday.

Going back in time, the friendship between Nilekani and Murthy began at Patni Computer Systems, where he was interviewed by Murthy in 1978. Three years down the line, driven by a common passion for technology, they started their own IT company - Infosys - which became the second-largest software exporter of the country. Nilekani, along with the other core team members, transformed Infy into a global leader in technology services and consulting.

Not long after 9/11, Nilekani took over as Infy CEO in 2002. The 9/11 aftermath had shaken India’s economy and the IT landscape looked bleak. Yet, over the next five years, the IT expert managed to grow Infy’s sales at about 38 per cent, which augured well for the investors. Incidentally, the growth rate of competitors like Wipro and Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) was at 34 per cent each during the same period. From 2007-2009, Nilekani then served as co-chairman of Infosys.

The IT behemoth even listed its shares on the NASDAQ in America in 2006, when it turned 25. When Nilekani moved out of his coveted position and Murthy retired from his chairman’s post later, the company had lost quite a bit of its sheen. However, other members had taken the responsibility as CEO and Murthy made a comeback in 2013. During this period, Infosys further expanded its presence in Latin America and earned revenue totalling $7 billion, yet it lost its sobriquet of being ‘Indian IT Bellweather’ to TCS.  

The person responsible for Nilekani’s re-entry at Infy is Vishal Sikka, who exited from the post of CEO on August 18. Ironically, it was Sikka’s exit which sent investors and board into a tizzy, until Nilekani took charge. View from India reported the story when Sikka took over as Infy’s first non-founder CEO back in July 2014.

An alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, Nilekani was conferred with the Padma Bhushan in 2006, India’s highest civilian honour. Nilekani is many things to many people - technocrat, Aadhaar Man, entrepreneur and bureaucrat and, most recently, non-executive chairman of Infosys.

The 62-year-old has done what seems so impossible: Nilekani has turned the tide in a strategic hope that the present and future of Infy becomes secure as he fills in the crucial gaps.

We wish him all the best.

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