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.