Rohini Nilekani on the Secret to Successful Governance | Grand Tamasha

Oct 05, 2022


Rohini Nilekani is an author and philanthropist who has worked for over three decades in India’s social sectors. She is the founder of Arghyam, a foundation for sustainable water and sanitation, and she also co-founded Pratham Books, a nonprofit which aims to enable access to reading for millions of children. With her husband Nandan, she is the co-founder and director of EkStep, a nonprofit education platform.

Her latest book, Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar (Society, State, and Markets): A Citizen-First Approach, encapsulates many of the lessons she has learned in her years working in the civil society and philanthropic sectors.

To talk more about these lessons, Rohini joins Milan on the show this week from Bangalore. The two discuss Rohini’s unlikely start in the world of civic activism, the role technology can play in bringing the state, society, and market into better alignment, and what works to reform urban governance. Plus, the two discuss the state of philanthropy in India and growing concerns about closing space for civil society in India.


0:00:12.9 Milan Vaishnav: Welcome to Grand Tamasha, a co-production of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the Hindustan Times. I’m your host, Milan Vaishnav. Rohini Nilekani, is an author and philanthropist who has worked for over three decades in India’s social sectors. She is the founder of Arghyam, a foundation for sustainable water and sanitation, and she also co-founded Pratham Books, a non-profit, which aims to enable access to reading for millions of children. With her husband Nandan, she is the co-founder and director of EkStep, a non-profit educational platform. Her latest book is called Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar: Society, State And Markets, A Citizen-First Approach. It encapsulates many of the lessons she has learned in her years working in the civil society and philanthropic sectors. To talk more about these lessons, Rohini joins me on the show today from Bangalore. Rohini, nice to see you again, and congrats on the book.

0:00:57.2 Rohini Nilekani: Thank you so much, Milan, it’s a pleasure to be on your podcast.

0:01:00.8 MV: So I wanna start at the very beginning. You talk in the introduction of the book that, three decades ago, that was sort of the beginning of your journey in the civic engagement space and that it was a moment sort of born of tragedy. There was a horrible road accident which claimed the lives of your friends, and that led you to start a charitable trust dedicated to road safety. Tell us a bit about this initial foray into the world of civic activism and sort of, what did you learn from that first journey?

0:01:31.6 RN: Thank you. In 1992, exactly 30 years ago, I co-founded, Nagarik, which means citizen in Hindi, and for safer roads. It was a few years actually after a horrible accident took away some close friends. And the state of India’s roads, there’s just too many accidents in India, even today. So I felt that something had to be tried to at least improve the city roads, if not the nation’s. And a few of us came together with great enthusiasm [chuckle] and very little experience, to try and tackle this rather large issue. We tried for a few years, but we worked very hard, but we, I’m afraid, failed rather spectacularly since the city roads didn’t get much safer. And we learned a lot of lessons from that, I think. I think very valuable opening innings for a long journey, because I learned that perhaps one of the things is that we didn’t have enough naagariks in Nagarik. We didn’t have enough citizens in this citizen movement, and that sometimes ideas can be ahead of their times, if the people don’t feel the same passion for that or the same interest in that cause, then you are left without participation and perhaps that was it, or we were not strategic enough, we didn’t apply enough resources to the problem, we didn’t respond to the problem at the scale it deserved.

0:03:00.6 RN: So we learned a lot about that, and then later on, as time went by and I became part of many other organizations, including Akshara Foundation, which was the state chapter of the National and International Pratham Network, and then I co-founded Pratham books as part of that, and then I set up my own foundation called Arghyam, which went on to work in water. The big lessons that were learned is, work with the people first. See what is the demand on the ground and build that demand even further, so that together, you can innovate on the ground to solve local and national issues. So it was a lesson well-learned, I think. [chuckle]

0:03:43.1 MV: Now the book is framed around these three concepts of Samaaj: Society, Sarkaar: The state, and Bazaar: The market. And these are concepts that you’ve been talking about for a number of years now, as you say in the book. But I was really struck by this one interaction that you had in the state of Bihar. You were with a local activist named Premji, and he sort of said something to you, I think that helped crystallize the meaning and evolution of these concept for you, and this was 15 years ago. Tell us a little bit about that conversation with Premji and the impact that that had on the way that you think about these issues.

0:04:19.9 RN: Yes. We had gone to the Northern State of Bihar, where we were doing a lot of work on water. And our partner Prem Kumar Verma was with us, he received us at the airport and took us on this long journey, to actually a very remote place in Bihar, where the local community had got together to save the water resources. And on the way he told us about his life, he was part of India’s big movement for Sampoorna Kranti under the leadership of Jayaprakash Narayan. And he was one of his proteges in fact. And he said that, the balance between Sarkaar, Samaaj and Bazaar has been very distorted. According to him in the good old days, Samaaj, which is society, had more agency and power. And then in the last three centuries, actually first the global Bazaar became very very strong, especially, and he referred to the East India Company in India, and then governments became very strong in the past two centuries. And he felt that the balance had tilted away from Samaaj or society, and that something needed to be done to restore that balance. And from that, somehow it hit me, the way he said it, hit me very hard. He was a great storyteller, and I started to do a lot of research on these three sectors and their interplay and what are their roles and responsibilities. And from there emerged, a kind of a society first, Samaaj first, Citizen-First Approach to my work, my writing and my life in fact.

0:06:03.6 RN: So, I thank him for that. Many, many, many, many people have written on the interplay of these three sectors. But I think what I try to say in the book, Milan, is that I believe that we need to create the mental model where we perhaps understand that Samaaj is the foundational sector, society is the foundational sector. All of us are citizens first. All of us are humans even before that. But before we are consumers of the market, before we are subject of a state, we are citizens first.

0:06:35.6 MV: So I wanna ask you about this citizen-centric approach, because one of the items in this book is a 2015 opinion piece you wrote on the way in which civic activism and civic engagement was starting to turn a corner in your home city of Bangalore. And because of that activism, there was pressure on politicians, on the bureaucracy and a greater demand for better services, right? So if you think about where we are today, I wanna ask you what’s changed, because we still see during the monsoon, we’re inundated with stories about waterlogged roads. We hear every rush hour, stories about inadequate transport infrastructure. In the summer months, we hear about water insecurity. As you look back at the past 10 years, has this sense of activism that you wrote so optimistically about, has that been sustained? What gains do you think it’s reaped? I mean, can you see that in the way that city life is behaving today?

0:07:31.8 RN: If we take my home city, Bangalore, I always joke that there are more reformers per square inch in Bangalore than anywhere else in the nation and there are mixed success.


0:07:43.2 RN: I think you can’t really put the toothpaste back in the tube because that idea has been unleashed, that Bangalore needs a lot of improvement in its public infrastructure and its goods and services delivery. So I think that idea is out there. But I think Bangalore, if you take Bangalore, it is at still a very young stage. Its growth has been very rapid, so the infra has simply not been able to keep up, whereas a city like Bombay is experiencing very little additional growth. So in some sense that infrastructure, and it’s still being built out, it’s much more stable than a fast growing city like Bangalore. So no matter how much reform is tried through the Samaaj, and citizens, it’s simply inadequate to the task. And because Bangalore, sorry to say, is such a cash cow for the state, the state government simply doesn’t want to lose control on the city. And in fact, we don’t even have a municipality operating right now, it’s being run by bureaucrats. So there’s a lot of push, and at the very hyperlocal level, our resident welfare associations are very strong.

0:08:52.7 RN: But I agree that urban reform has just begun in India and there’s a long way to go for civic, civil society practitioners to work with the government to improve urban governance. It’s a key task to be done in the next few decades, but there’s a lot of enthusiasm and there’s a lot of participation so I’m hoping for the best. But yes, we saw tremendous flooding in East Bangalore this year. And you saw all the memes going around the world about how these rich homes were inundated. Of course, a lot of the slums in the poor areas were inundated too. But when you saw these rich homes under five feet of water it really came out very starkly. And I think there is a, I hope, a growing recognition that you can’t really have a very thin slice of high quality private infrastructure on a mass public infra that is broken. And I think that’s why I say in the book as well that the elite can no longer secede from participating in solutioning for the larger public because small private infra is no longer enough.

0:10:10.8 MV: Let me ask you, I was gonna ask you about this later, but let me ask you about it now. This is sort of one of the big questions that your book raises. Right? You talk in the book about how in the past, the middle and upper classes have largely exited from public services and the public sphere, whether it’s retreating into gated communities, private providers, doctors, teachers, water tankers, you name it. And I’m wondering if the mindset has been changed and to what extent COVID had something to do with it, right? In the sense that no matter how protected you think you might be, at the end of the day, public health is public health. It reminds me of the horrific gang rape which took place in Delhi in 2012 where at some point despite all the private protection, your daughters, your sisters, your mothers, your relations have to go onto the street, they have to engage with the world and bad things can happen if we don’t invest in proper law and order. So do you think that there is this change underway? Do you see it or is this still sort of a pipe dream?

0:11:12.1 RN: The sense that we are all connected has hit home hard through the pandemic. You cannot escape from viruses. You cannot escape from polluted air. You cannot escape from flooding. There are… You cannot escape from the effects of climate change, no matter how rich you are, no matter how many air filters and gated walls you hide behind. So I think that sense that the elite are coming to this realization, and that’s why you see a lot of urban professionals, career professionals actually trying to do a lot of work in the service sector, in the social sector. They give a lot of their personal time for this. I think that realization has come, but of course, it’s too little and maybe too late. I think we need need much more of that understanding to see Prem, as I said, that the elite cannot secede beyond a point, and that we all have to raise our voices, elite and others, to actually create a stronger public base, a public infrastructure base, so that everybody can benefit and not just the elite, because otherwise it doesn’t work for anyone. It doesn’t work for the elite either. It certainly doesn’t work for the poor, but it’s not going work for the elite either.

0:12:28.2 RN: And I think that sense is coming in. And I feel, at least I meet a lot of professionals who are coming from the corporate sector into the social sector precisely because they want to participate in this creation of a more equal field. It’s going to take decades for sure, but we are such a young democracy. Right?

0:12:51.8 MV: One of the things that I think you see a lot in Bangalore, and I’m looking at it from a distance, but you see it to a lesser extent perhaps in other metros as well, is that there is an infusion of people from the corporate sector, particularly from the technology sector, who want to apply their skills and trade to fixing urban governance issues, right?

0:13:13.8 RN: Yes.

0:13:13.8 MV: In the book you talk about the fact that, tech innovation has complicated the relationship between Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar. It’s created opportunities, it’s also created challenges. And I think we’re living in an era today where many of us are struggling with, how do we weigh the costs versus the benefits of tech in our lives. We thought this was gonna be this amazing, transformational thing. It has transformed many things, some for the better, some for the worse. As you look at the ledger of pros and cons, are you optimistic or pessimistic on balance about the way that tech can be used to improve these sorts of urban governance challenges that we’ve been talking about?

0:13:54.4 RN: Yeah. Look, I live with Nandan Nilekani, my husband and… [laughter]

0:14:00.3 MV: So there’s only one right answer to this question.

0:14:02.8 RN: You can’t help but being optimistic around him and the whole gaggle of professionals and the teams that he brings with him because they really tried their darndest best to harness tech for public good. And I think he’s played some role in the building out of India’s open public digital infrastructure, and that has just been tremendously transformational for ordinary people on the streets, for small members of the Bazaar, who are very small businesses and livelihoods. It has been… India has probably the best such digital infra now, with billions of dollars of transactions happening every day on financial transactions on mobile phone because of UPI. And we can mention hundreds of things like that, starting with Aadhaar, all the way through UPI now to ONDC, which is going to be a retail platform built out for anyone to anyone connection in the marketplace.

0:15:09.5 RN: So I can’t help but be optimistic. We have to be vigilant, however, and that is why I tell all my friends and all the organizations I know in the civil society sector, that India is going to be a digital country, right? Today’s citizens are already digital natives, so many of them, especially young people. And if we want technology to be used for good, then civil society has to play the same role in the technology domain that it does in the physical world. It has to be able to create the mirrors, the analytics, the whole civil society institutional movement to keep technology from being used for harm, just like it does on many other issues in the non-technology domain. And for that India civil society needs to get more aggressively digital.


0:16:16.8 MV: Hey, Grand Tamasha listeners, thanks for listening to the podcast. Putting this show together each week is a labor of love, but it takes a lot of work to put out a great show every week. If you’d like to support the work we do at Grand Tamasha, please visit Don’t forget to subscribe to us on Apple podcast, Google podcast, Spotify, or on your favorite podcasting platform. So you’ll be the first to know when a new episode rolls out.


0:16:41.7 MV: So, there’s a debate about technology and state capacity, and how you look at these two variables, and there are certain services or forms of welfare delivery that may be amenable to technological fixes and some which may be less amenable. I wanna ask you about water, because this is a subject that you have dedicated a significant chunk of your life to. And it’s also an issue that this present government, the Modi government, has also made a key part of its second term to make universal the provision of potable water, is a key part of its welfare plank. So, how do you look at a massive effort like this at scale? Which I think anyone who looks at this from the outside says this could be hugely transformational, not just for environment, but for public health, for education, for all sorts of outcomes. How do you look at a big government scheme like this and tell whether or not we’re on the right track as somebody who’s been steeped in this sector for so long?

0:17:42.4 RN: No, I think it’s phenomenal. For decades now, governments have been working for better water security for our people and for the country, because it is such a key resource for the economy as well. This government has fast tracked, has built upon what other governments were also keenly engaged in, and this particular Jal Jeevan mission, the water life mission, water for life mission, it seems to be on track because the ambition is to deliver running water, at least for basic lifeline purposes to every single household in India. And of course, there are gonna be challenges in delivery, but a lot has already started to happen. And I think it is going to quickly change our public health outcomes because along with the Swachh Bharat initiative for building toilets in every home and preventing open defecation, I think these two things combined are definitely going to do the important task of improving preventive health outcomes, actually.

0:18:44.0 RN: So the challenges on the ground will be of sustainability of the source of water because it’s not like you can pipe river water from, to every place. So some of the work that Arghyam was doing over the last 16 years, and we have been… Our partners have been incredibly successful in, for example, talking about sustainable ground water management. And I think those kind of things are spreading in the country. And because drinking water and lifeline water is such a small component compared to say, agricultural water or water use in industry, water for life is a very… You need, hardly 54 liters per person, 55 liters per person per day for your basic needs. So it’s a very small, it’s small water, it’s a small portion of the water. And if we can do that efficiently, it’ll have absolutely exponential benefits. The process is underway. And I do hope we succeed as a country and I hope the government succeeds in actually making those steps work. It’s that first mile issue always. Is the ability of the local government, because that’s where the capacity matters to keep that water flowing. And there have been now decades of work on creating village water committees in the urban areas, also in the wards, there is enough capacity. So hopefully, this one much delayed important public infra will be up and running soon, and literally running, hopefully.

0:20:18.5 MV: We’ve talked a lot about civil society and what it’s able to do, how it’s able to contribute to solving some of these core governance issues. I wanna kinda turn the question though, towards this idea of the ease of being a non-profit in India. We hear a lot about the ease of doing business, but being a non-profit in India is not so easy. You talk in the book very candidly about the concerns you have over closing space for civil society, government limits on funding, especially foreign funding, restrictions or a mindset really that would seek to sort of limit free speech of NGOs. How concerned are you that there are sort of these burgeoning constraints that the Sarkaar is placing on Samaaj today?

0:21:06.7 RN: Yeah, it’s definitely a little worrisome because I do believe very strongly that a strong and secure government needs a strong and secure civil society to work alongside it, to deliver its development goals. I think the work of civil society too, now is to create more space and build better bridges of trust to their governments. And government is not a monolith, right? There are always going to be champions to understand the need for partnering with civil society. In our work, we have seen tremendous openness to partnership, but I think, well, and not just in India, it looks like worldwide. There seems to be a pushback on dissent, on the voicing of anti-government opinions. So I think the work ahead for Samaaj is to start building bridges of trust, because eventually when you see the goals are the same, the ideologies maybe different. Everybody wants inclusive justice, more access, removal of poverty, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

0:22:09.5 RN: So I think there is scope for space, but it is worrisome, I do wish there would be more trust. There was some corrections to be made because in some ways the social sector, India was not very transparent, that is true, but I think we may have switched the pendulum too far and all the regulations and on all the FCRA things which that is the following funding regulations that is taking, takes a long time now to get the approvals, et cetera. I hope this will be corrected soon, because you see governments do need civil society, okay? They need civil society organizations to serve as mirrors. They need them to reach the first mile because even if a government were to be very efficient, it is very hard for them to reach citizens at the first mile, they need those intermediary organizations. They need all the risk taking capital both philanthropy capital and the risk taking social human capital that is deployed by civil society organizations. No government can do without that in a developing country like us, which is so highly aspirational. So I’m hoping those spaces will remain open. We all have to work together on this, it’s not an automatic thing.

0:23:25.2 MV: I find it interesting your use of first mile, because it’s the reverse of what most people call the first mile, right? Your first mile is the one closest to the citizen, most people talk about first mile as being the one closest to the bureaucrat. Is this, I take this as intentional in your part.

0:23:40.3 RN: Yeah, no, I read this phrase first mile somewhere years ago and it stuck to me, and we use it all the time because it makes eminent sense. The first mile is the place where the citizen who has… Who needs the state and markets to be efficient resides. And if you call that the last mile, then you’re going to do things for that space last, ’cause it’s a mental model ship. If you think of it as a first mile, you’re going to give it, like Mahatma Gandhi used to say, “Think of that last person first.” So that’s why we call it the first mile closest to the citizen where much of the work remains to be done.

0:24:17.3 MV: So I wanna transition to talking a bit about Indian philanthropy because one of the themes from this book is really encouraging, rallying Indian philanthropy to do more. To give more, to be more engaged, to be more risk taking and so on. You and your husband, Nandan have signed the Giving Pledge, which means you’re committed to giving a majority of your wealth away during the course of your lifetimes. As you look at the scene today, do you see a kind of revolution in the Indian philanthropic sector or is it more continuity than change? I mean, how do you assess how people have responded to you and others calls to be more transformational?

0:24:58.9 RN: No, I think Indian philanthropy’s at a very exciting stage right now. There are many, many collaborative platforms like Co-Impact, like the Growth Fund and many others that have strung up. The young wealthy, because there’s been such a sudden rise in the wealth of fairly young entrepreneurs. I think they, unlike the older entrepreneurs are not waiting. They’ve already started giving forward and because they think very differently from some of us older ones, they’re innovating fast and doing things that they’re really passionate about. Whether it is simply museums or working in education or building, working in skilling and livelihoods or working on farm and agriculture. What are… They’re entering many, many spaces actually. So I believe that that is hugely promising. There’s still more work to be done. Luckily, many intermediary organizations have sprung up that are also helping wealthy families.

0:25:56.2 RN: Like the newest thing is called GivingPi. Another new thing is called Accelerate Indian Philanthropy. So lots of people are engaged in this space of driving out more generosity from the wealthy of India. ‘Cause I have, we talked about before the realization that all our faiths are so deeply linked in this country in Indian and in the world. So Indians are generous and we actually retail giving in India is huge. Hundreds of crores were given away during the pandemic, that remains very interesting. People who don’t even have much are willing to steadily give some of it every month. Much of the finding has been very, very heart warming from things like giving India, et cetera. And the rich today, I don’t think they have… They can’t escape from being philanthropic in any case. I think they are being serenaded for doing so, and they are being… I guess they’re going to soon be called out for not doing so. There’s the Hurun List that comes out every year. I think more and more people want to be on it.

0:26:56.7 RN: So that’s a good thing. It’s, people want to be on such good lists and they want to be celebrated for their philanthropy. But I wish Indians would give much more, much faster and much more strategically. We need to collaborate, trust each other so that we can work and give together, because then it’s more than the sum of its parts. So I’d like to keep these conversations going, but there is a lot of conversation happening in India. And as I keep saying, the countries allow such runaway wealth creation only if that wealth is going to be deployed for the larger good, otherwise, why would any state or society allow this. Wealth comes with a great responsibility and extreme wealth comes with an extreme responsibility I believe to the larger good of society. And Indians, wealthy Indians are being generous, but I think not generous enough. And there are many reasons for it, but I do hope that they’ll get more and more generous and give away more faster.

0:28:00.7 MV: If you look at the last third of this book, there’s a phrase or a theme that keeps reappearing. And it’s a framework that you and your husband, Nandan have been developing for collaboration. It’s called Societal Platform Thinking. And I wonder if we should just pause for a second and maybe ask you to tell us what this framework actually is. What are the benefits that it brings to society? Is this something which has broader applicability beyond the Indian borders?

0:28:30.1 RN: Societal Platform Thinking and now we just call it Societal Thinking, emerge from all the work that Nandan and I and all our marvelous teams have been doing for these few decades. In my case, especially the work of Pratham Books and in Nandan’s case, the whole Aadhaar Project, the unique ID project and of course his experienced in running a multi… A global tech firm Infosys. We said, how can we… In the work that we were doing on education, we said, how can we create a framework for impact at scale, which we can apply across many sectors, not just education? So we started to put our heads together to say, what is the framework? What is the architecture that can be designed that will, from the get go look at what works at scale rather than doing the old fashioned thing and scaling what works.

0:29:23.1 RN: Because we’ve always seen that pilots in the social sector seem to succeed wildly, but when you try to scale, there’s a lot of failure. So how… Is it something about from the get go designing for scale that is different? And some of the teams that we came up with, which we had seen successfully deployed, whether in Aadhaar, whether in EkStep or whether at Pratham Books was that actually it’s all about restoring agency to people to do things. So what you have to create is a unified but not uniform response to any problem. Because you need diversity everywhere because problems have to be solved in context. You cannot have a single solution, everybody knows that. But what does that actually mean? How do you design a unified but not uniform approach? And that’s what the team has been putting out. Actually, there is a website called, which people can look at and input into, because we don’t think this is the only way to achieve impact at scale, we think this is one pathway.

0:30:28.2 RN: Basically, we’re talking about restoring agency. We are talking about distributing the ability to solve. So don’t think of just pushing one problem… Solution down the pipeline because it doesn’t work well that way. But if you can enable the distribution of the ability to solve, which is a kind of mindset that you take and you develop the local leadership to take on problems, you are much more likely to get sustainable change, because there’s local ownership. There’s also for that, of course you need a technology backbone, which allows a lot of the sharing and amplifying of good solutions, the core creation of good solutions. So that is an integral part of this. But we always say you have to be technology enabled and not technology led, because the technology is not the solution, it’s just the pathway. So these are the kinda basic principles that we operate from.

0:31:30.4 RN: So if you want to reduce the friction between Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar to work and do what they do best, you need all the three to solve any complex societal problem. But you need them all to do what they do best and not try to do the work of the other. So how do you reduce the friction and increase the ability of these to cooperate and collaborate? And how do you release the agency of all those who are involved in that process to continually solve the problem? Because it keeps morphing. The problem keeps morphing, your solutions have to keep morphing as well.

0:32:04.9 MV: So Rohini, I wanna end maybe on a personal note. You talk about, in the book, having to battle a bit for your own identity because your husband, who was one of the founders of Infosys, the head of the UID project, you said so many other important posts. He takes up a lot of space, right? I think is the way you put it. And you’ve had to work hard and demonstrate over time that you have an approach and your approach is different than his, but it can also be complimentary and unique in its own way. Tell us a little bit about the process of kind of self-realization and the sort of equilibrium that you finally achieved, because it sounds like it was a process that took a while to figure out.

0:32:47.1 RN: Yeah, no, definitely. Obviously, and Nandan is hugely successful in both the corporate sector and while working with the state. So yes, you know, and in any case women have to work a little harder to cover their own identity. I am not complaining, I think I’ve been steadily working now for 30 years and the best thing has been that since 2015, Nandan and I are finally working together and hopefully influencing each other’s thinking. I am learning a lot from his architectural almost, systems building, systems design approach to problem solving. And I hope, he says he is learning from me about always retaining the empathy, which needs to be at the core of why we want to create the better society for all of us.

0:33:39.7 RN: So I think we’ve managed to become



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