Note: About two years ago I met Nandan Nilekani when he came to Silicon Valley to give a guest lecture. It had been over two decades since I last saw him. I was pleasantly surprised that he recognized me instantly and he had some nice words to tell me. Thanks Nandan.
We were classmates in the electrical engineering department at IIT Bombay,and while there were many high achievers in that department, I was especially impressed with two of them and one of them was Nandan. (And the other one was Narendra Karmarkar.) And I openly voiced my opinion to anybody who would care to listen. While Karmarkar was making a name for himself in the campus and people didn't object to my assessment of him, many of them seemed unimpressed with Nandan Nilekani's prospects. Here I will describe a few incidents (will add more later if I have the time) that will throw some more light on Nandan Nilekani's personality and why I thought highly of him.
It was a rare event. Karmarkar, Nilekani, Somnath Sinha (likely or was it Prem Kamble?) and I were assigned to the same group in our electronic circuit design lab course by a professor who wanted balanced groups. Normally, toppers didn't associate with non-toppers. Here was poor Karmarkar in risk of losing a grade point or two and jeopardizing his chances of getting the president's gold medal. Whatever thoughts crossed his mind, outwardly he remained calm.
We had a meeting to decide on our shares of the workload. I was quite enthusiastic, as was the case with me during the first week of most semesters, and proposed a fairly equitable distribution of work. Nobody else said much and the meeting was adjourned.
After that Nandan left with me towards our hostels and then asked me in his Bombay Hindi, what was I trying to do. I asked him to explain what he meant. He asked me why din't I leave technical work to Narendra Karmarkar who was best suited for it and we manage the project. At beginning I didn't like this idea since I wanted to learn and contribute too. However, I agreed to his idea. In our next meeting Nandan proposed a solution that passed on major share of the lab work to Narendra Karmarkar and he seeemd happy about it. At the end of the semester when my grade report card showed an A for that course, I too was happy.
He was one of the chief organizers of the event one year and I saw him less and less in the classroom during that period. I offered to help him in matters related to MI and he accepted it (even though I don't think he needed my help at all.) Anyway, he started taking me to a few meetings and discussions where campus hot shots were deliberating on Mood Indigo planning. Most of them didn't know me but when Nandan introduced me as a friend of his, changes in their attitutes towards me was remarkable.
Most of the time I simply observed how these discussions went. Frequently they disagreed among themselves but it was remarkable to see how Nandan started slowly but gradually took control of the situations and before long he was telling them what to do and they all followed him without any protest. I was not sure about Nandan's leadership qualities in a large setting (I somehow could not imagine him being an excellent public speaker in spite of his exceptional verbal skills) but I started telling others that in a small group setting of 4-5 people, Nandan Nilekani was the person most likely to emerge as a leader.
(Last Updated: March 12, 2005.)