Atanu Dey On India's Development

Weekend Edition: They Fell From Grace

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This is the weekend edition — a round up of things that have caught my eye over the week. As it happens, there appears to be a theme: how the powerful have fallen. Three tales about three entities — two people and one firm — tell about their descent from rarefied heights to close to the mean sea level. They are about Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Rajat Gupta, and Infosys.

As is pretty well known, Strauss-Kahn was the head of the IMF. He was accused of rape by a housekeeper at the Sofitel New York. The man was arrested. They took him off a flight that was about to depart for Europe, and put him in jail. Things were looking pretty bleak for him until evidence began to surface that the woman had a pretty shady past and was probably protesting too much. The details are in this NYTimes piece of July 1st.

In this age of the interwebs (I love that portmanteau word combining internet and world wide web), you not only get to read the article, but if you care you can get to know how others feel about the story. The comments often illuminate the scene with a clarity that is a joy to behold. Here’s one comment (#214) by “sophie from Pasadena CA” that I have to share with you:

God, this story is so bizarre and interesting! The three stars: the amazonian maid, the rumply affable-seeming French man who could have ruled France, the beautiful wife with eyes that spell love. In the shadows: a bespectacled blonde Hungarian economist, Pablo Picasso, Bernard Henri Levi, the perfect Jewish lawyer,… It’s just manna. I mean, we all lie at the airport about having to make some urgent meeting…few of us actually have an appointment with Angela Merkel in a few hours.

And we have all experienced misery and joy. But, to experience such extreme ruin, being pilloried before the entire world and then such miraculous vindication, complete with a taped smoking gun phone call, (for some reason, I have identified with DSK throughout this storyline).

The truth is right on the surface and also impossible to grasp. Knowing the exact details of what happened is like asking exactly where was the atom at that moment in time. But, the macroscopic picture is very clear: a womanizer and a con artist meet in a hotel room. The air is cruel that day, the pathologies that have managed to stay below the surface rise into the open.

In the end, perhaps the most interesting aspect of this story is the lens it puts on ourselves. I have wondered why I have had such voracious interest in this story. I think it has to do with the upending of social categories, the thrill of seeing life at the very front of the herd mingle with life at the very back. “A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and cat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.”

DSK was all set to become the next president of France. All that promise is gone, just because he could not keep his pants zipped up. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it.

Lots of people are still wondering what happened to Rajat Gupta. Renowned for his intelligence, ambition, hard work and achievements, he was the poster boy of the “IIT boy makes good” crowd. His fall from grace was fast, hard, and shocking. A friend sent me a link to a Forbes India article in an email with the subject line, “Rats fast abandoning the Rajat Gupta sinking ship”:

“How do you start a conversation with him? Do you say you’re sorry this happened or do you say, son-of-a bitch, look what you did?” asks Kanwal Rekhi, managing director of California-based Inventus Capital Partners and a friend of Gupta’s for 20 years.
. . .
Looking back, Rekhi recalls a negative trait about Gupta that suggested there was more to the man than meets the eye. “It was worrisome how Rajat always wanted to be centre stage at events such as those organised by Pan-IIT, which is a labour of love. If he didn’t get the spotlight, he often did not participate. But the lack of character and moral fibre — based on the taped conversation — wasn’t the Rajat I knew,” he says.
. . .
Vivek Wadhwa, senior research associate at Harvard Law School, says he has no words of support.

“He may or may not be guilty, but there is no forgiveness for his obvious lapse of ethics. He had no business talking to anyone after a board meeting, leave alone the head of a hedge fund. It’s shameful. I thought he was far, far higher than this,” Wadhwa says.
. . .
“I think Rajat is very smart, very thoughtful, very considerate, able to accommodate stakeholders’ perspectives and make events happen. The McKinsey partners loved him, people respected him, so let’s not judge him before the court does,” says Nitin Mehta, a California-based private investor and Gupta’s friend and former colleague at McKinsey, Europe. When asked how Gupta was holding up, Mehta said he had not spoken to him since the allegations.

Would you like another helping of schadenfreude?

Moving on, another email from the same aforementioned friend. “InfoShit to hit the fan” was the very clever subject line of the email which had this link to a blog post by a Don Tennant at ITBusinessedge.com about Infosys’s visa troubles in the US:

It has been a full four months since I began following developments relating to the visa fraud lawsuit against Infosys that was filed by Infosys employee and whistleblower Jay Palmer. Those developments, which include the U.S. government’s subsequent criminal investigation of the company’s operations, paint as unflattering a picture of an IT company as any I’ve seen in my 20 years of covering this industry. And I’ve seen some shameful pictures.

What’s unique in this case is the length to which Infosys, and especially company founder and outgoing chairman Narayana Murthy, have gone over the years to paint the company as a model of high values and corporate integrity. I’ve watched video after video of Murthy preaching about qualities like integrity and leadership, including one in 2008 in which he quoted Robert Kennedy (I couldn’t help but enjoy the irony of Murthy quoting a former U.S. attorney general, given what the feds would be investigating three years later). It all seems to have had an intoxicating effect on Infosys’ employees, who, I’ve come to learn, proudly call themselves “Infoscions.”

So that’s it. Lesser mortals like you and I neither soar so high nor fall so hard. The shame, the disgrace, the utter stupidity, the greed. But still, it’s just karma. There, but for the grace of the universe that created me utterly devoid of any ambition, go I.

  • polloi

    on the Strauss-Kahn episode: Is there something called too much justice? My biased view is Mr. SK does not deserve to be treated so harshly and he lost the most in the incident irrevocably. The local law looks draconian when it comes to incidents like this.

  • Yoga

    The magnitude of the crime gets magnified for people at high places…So, once they fall they fall drastically.

  • http://rexzilla.livejournal.com Rex

    On the Infosys story: The author refers to starry-eyed ‘Infoscions’ drinking the KoolAid about their company being ultra ethical and values focused.
    I’ve always had a bullshit radar go on alert whenever I see a publicly traded company blather on about their values, or act holier than thou. As if anything will ever trump shareholder interests!
    Google famously declared their ‘do no evil’ slogan, but promptly censored their search results when the Chinese government came down on them, rather than sticking to their alleged principles and refusing to do business in China. (They have changed their stance since).

    The more a company or individual trumpets their virtuousness, the more the scrutiny they’ll be subjected to when any lapses occur.
    In the case of Infosys, it would have done well for its fan boys to remember that the only thing a public corporation is loyal to is its stock price.

  • TiredProf

    Atanu, have you ever read a single reader comment in ToI or Hindu or Deccan or Express or Outlook that comes close to the insight and quality of expression of “sophie from Pasadena CA”? Most comments from the laptop wielding Indian middle class aren’t even literate.

    I have seen the best of the best from around the world in the engineering research community and most IITians are pretty drab compared to them. Make no mistake, there are plenty of Rajat Guptas who have not been caught yet.

    There is no surprise in Infosys’s behavior. Apart from other reasons already documented, I am sure Dow Chemicals and Union Carbide also pretend to be ethical corporations in USA while screwing over Indians. The only difference may be the insufferable holiness of Narayanmurthy.

  • http://www.thelearningpoint.net/ PrashBh

    I found it nauseating how so many of these “rags to riches” guys were the posterboys and role models on the IIT Campus. Famous alumni almost automatically implied the rich ones. These were the role models for the average IITian. I have nothing against wealth and am certainly not a socialist but this is a tendency which an educational institute should nip in the bud. This perpetual worship of wealthy alumni is what is making the current set of students and pass-outs all the more insecure and needlessly career-conscious.

    As for the production of more Rajat Gupta and Anil Kumar clones, the process has already begun.

    ex-IIT-D trader, 27 years old

    The proportion of students flocking to finance and consulting (since 2006) should be a good indicator of the Rajat Gupta type scandals which can be expected within a decade from now.

    I have no idea how other engineering colleges ( across the world ) structure their curriculum but MAYBE IIT ( and other Indian Engineering colleges ) could think of including more liberal arts courses in the introductory years to repair some of the damage which coaching centers do.

    Also, Rekhi’s statement… “PAN-IIT, a labour of love”.
    Umm.. I am not so sure, maybe you should attend one of these. Looks like a launchpad for hot air balloons to me.

    • http://www.deeshaa.org Atanu Dey

      PrashBh wrote

      Also, Rekhi’s statement… “PAN-IIT, a labour of love”.
      Umm.. I am not so sure, maybe you should attend one of these. Looks like a launchpad for hot air balloons to me.

      I have attended a Pan-IIT. See this post and its follow up.

  • Vinnu S

    Another view of the whole Infosys brouhaha is that it is politically motivated. Elements from both parties and even a few independents have latched on to the idea that Indian IT companies are evil, and take away American jobs. Well, maybe they are, maybe they aren’t, and in all likelihood the truth is some shade of gray. It’s simply being used as a political tool and if certain reports are to be believed, an economic policy tool to put pressure on India. Politics as usual.

  • http://www.parrikar.com Rajan P. Parrikar

    To echo of TiredProf’s remarks: Can you name even one commentator on Indian TV or in print media of the quality of a Paul Krugman? One Indian journo or writer with a mind that had graduated from adolescence? Where can you read intelligent discourse in India? Note that pieces that include “Dhoni” or “Tendulkar” don’t count. A nation that takes cricket this seriously cannot be taken seriously.

  • http://www.parrikar.com Rajan P. Parrikar

    Also: to add to TiredProf’s line about “engineering research”: I am always amused to see the juvenile chest-thumping by Indians about their ‘contributions’ to Silicon Valley. The acutely deluded even boast that without Indians, Silicon Valley wouldn’t exist. The reality, of course, is that Indians have been a negligible presence in the world of technology when you consider innovations and original ideas. The best Indians can do is to hold Pan-IIT boastathons and generate chain emails with bullshit like Dham is the “father of Pentium.”

  • RC

    Where can you read intelligent discourse in India?

    Ajay Shah on FirstPost.com and Niranjan Rajadhyaksha on LiveMint at least as far as macro economic commentary is concerned.

    Dham is the “father of Pentium.”

    If folks call Steve Jobs the “inventor” of the iPhone than I think we should have enough leeway to let Vinod Dham be called ‘father of Pentium’. But I agree, the juvenile chest thumping is kind of embarrassing.

  • Loknath

    Murthy garu of late has gone berserk

    He didnt think twice before preaching laws of the land to Ramdevs and Kejriwals. He almost sounded like a mole of sonia gandhi who probably fancied the idea of of some murthy speak to the calm the voice of the educated masses who have lost no time in exhibiting their disdain for leaders of the congress party in the recent past.

    I pity loss of Murthy’s self-esteem. Its unfortunate esp. when we have very few exemplars to look forward to for whatever they are worth.

  • Chnks

    Re. DSK: “Things were looking pretty bleak for him until evidence began to surface that the woman had a pretty shady past and was probably protesting too much.” In my opinion, this has been a ridiculous smear campaign against the victim, the hotel maid.

    Since this attempt by DSK’s ultra high paid defense team to tarnish the maid’s reputation, details have emerged that:
    (a) Many years ago, DSK assaulted his 21 year-old god-daughter Tristane Banon who is the daughter of Ms. Anne Mansouret, a totally credible and well known person who supports her daughter’s claim.
    (b) The maid’s neighbors continue to support her character as decent and unassuming.
    (c) She wasn’t gold digging and was placed at the Sofitel hotel through the union of hotel workers.

    On the other hand, look at how people like Ben Stein and Bernard-Henry Levi have defended this beast: http://blogs.forbes.com/erikkain/2011/05/17/ben-steins-shameful-defense-of-dominique-strauss-kahn/ One surely wonders what motivates these imbeciles spring to his defense so passionately.

    She has been dismissed as a prostitute by his legal team – with absolutely no proof.

    Also, a big deal has been made in the media about this maid lying on her asylum application and therefore condemning her as a liar. These people should speak to other immigrant visa holders who came through the asylum route and take an honesty survey there – the system is designed to greatly exaggerate hardship claims.

  • Kaffir

    Re: DSK, the Jew yet again screwed the Muslim.
    /tongue-in-cheek

  • Parijat

    Atanu, it’s the last statement of your post that caught my eye. You seem to imply that ambition would necessarily translate into a transgression of ethics (and law). Either that means that the definition of ambition is to make money/be great/be famous (take your pick) by any means available; or that ambition will necessarily corrupt the ambitious – that there is really no means to achieve high goals without stepping over ethical boundaries. Which are you implying? Or neither?

  • Marichi

    There are plenty of thoughtful writers in India who write with clarity, precision and learning. In this I would include almost every columnist of The Pioneer, some of the writers from Nitin Pai’s collective (Pragmatic Euphony excluded as he is a weak link in INI’s otherwise formidable collective) and plenty of letter writers. And the likes of MJ Akbar are a class apart. Not to forget Jerry Rao, PB Mehta and several others. As far as correspondents are concerned, India has produced the finest foreign correspondent writing in English ever, of the last 100 years, bar none – Saeed Naqvi. I find writers in the large newspapers in the US insufferably ignorant, in the UK they are hollow if not pompous jackasses. But writers from the alternative press, be it a Roldo Bartimole in Cleveland or anyone from the Texas Observer (aha, the late Molly Ivins) and of course the matchless George Monbiot in the UK are worth staying up for all night.
    Tired Prof, I too have seen some IIT engineering types who are absolutely smoking hot good. That is why they raise money in great quantities. You are mistake if you think otherwise. As for Infy, in the US, the law will surely run its course, so shall we wait while that happens? As for Infy in India, if you have not met Nandan and Murthy when they operated out of a poky little office in Jayanagar, Bangalore, as I have you would not ever appreciate the magnitude of what this band of seven men have achieved. Of course it is not easy working in a successful company. And there is more than a touch of pure green jealousy that this bunch of men could have achieved so much success in a country like India without once ever blaming the system. And before you bad mouth Infy acquaint yourself with the many causes its founders support. How many of you know that Mahandas Pai is a trustee of AkshayaPatra, the world’s largest provider of free school lunches?
    If you think 14-16 hour work days are bad, how many hours do you think people work for at Goog, MSFT or AAPL? You don’t like that go fund another job. Simple.
    And whether you like it or not, Vinod Dham is the guy who designed the N10 and in IC parlance, he’s the guy who invented it. And he is a far more successful guy than anyone of you carpers.