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From head honcho to convicted felon — just what happened to Rajat Gupta?

Bishakha De Sarkar | Updated on April 05, 2019

Last word: Rajat Gupta, who led McKinsey from 1994-2003, was found guilty of insider trading. The book, he says, is his defence   -  BusinessLine

The former McKinsey CEO tells his side of the story

First things first. In the year dot, when I was not much bigger either, Rajat Gupta’s family was close to ours. In this age of disclaimers, when keeping stuff to yourself — or, worse, sharing information selectively — is frowned upon, it’s best to get this out right up front.

I am not sure if I ever spoke with him — there is not much that a five-year-old girl can discuss with a busy, college-going boy-legend. And legend he certainly was in the well-knit Bengali community of journalists and their families living in central Delhi. He was the poster boy for success to the kids of that small enclave, and later, of course, to a great many others.

There was good reason for that. The student of Modern School had scored high marks in his higher secondary exams and then cleared the tough IIT entrance test. He had graduated from IIT Delhi and joined Harvard Business School in the US. And then, years later, he was the first non-American-born head of consultancy firm McKinsey and was on the board of, among others, Goldman Sachs.

And then he fell — or was felled, depending on your viewpoint.

“McKinsey, Goldman, jail,” said The Economist in a succinct headline on October 24, 2012.

This was not part of the script. The enfants terribles of Qutb Road, where Anandabazar Patrika’s Delhi correspondents lived with their families in the early ’60s, were often told by their despairing parents to follow in the footsteps of chief of bureau Ashwini and Pran Kumari Gupta’s brilliant son. Look at Rajat, they were told, just look at him. He was just a young boy when his parents died — his father first, and, within years, his mother. But look at him, they were told, look at how he rose.

I am looking at him now. He is sitting in front of me — dapper in a suit, silver glints in his hair, cheerful smile on his face —in the conference room of a Delhi luxury hotel. There is little to indicate — barring perhaps the occasional line on his face — that he spent 19 months in jail.

“I am, in a way, closing the chapter,” he says.

Gupta is out with a book on his time in jail, the prelude and the epilogue. “I am telling my story in my own words, in my own way. And, yes, it is cathartic,” he adds.

For those who came in late, here’s a quick recap. In 2012, a federal jury in New York found Gupta guilty of passing secret information about an investment in Goldman Sachs to his hedge fund manager friend Raj Rajaratnam. Rajaratnam, a billionaire of Sri Lankan origin, was sentenced to 11 years of jail in 2011.

“I did no trading... I received no payments, and I made no money,” he says. “Raj was a business colleague (a poor choice, on my part, but not a criminal one),” he writes in Mind Without Fear, published by Juggernaut.

Mind Without Fear; Rajat Gupta; Juggernaut; Memoir; ₹699

 

The jury found him guilty. Gupta went to jail in Massachusetts on June 17, 2014, and was released in 2016. He moved court then, holding that the prosecutors had failed to prove that he had personally benefited from passing on tips to Rajaratnam. In January this year, a US court rejected his claim that he was innocent of the charges.

“It’s all over now,” he says.

But the book is his defence — the one that he curiously did not voice during the trial. “My side of the story has never been told,” he writes. “Never in my life had I refused to answer when someone asked me a direct question, no matter what the consequences. I conceded to my lawyers’ insistence that this was the best course of action, but it made no sense to me. In hindsight, I think I made a mistake. I should have told my story.”

It was, most would agree, an epic mistake. Why on earth didn’t he speak up, a friend asks me, tsking and pshawing her way through the book. I point out that he was legally advised against defending himself. The friend, ever a cynic, pshaws some more. Then why now, she asks.

Because, he says, he wants his twin grandchildren to know what happened. He wants others who looked up to him — the kids from Qutb Road, perhaps — to know the story. In the book, he recalls how two young Indians approached him at the US Open tennis tournament last summer. “You’ve been a role model for us. I hope you are doing well,” one of them said to Gupta. “If I think about who I would most like to read this book, it’s people like them... People who have been wondering: Why did this happen? And how is he doing?” Gupta writes.

He is doing all right — as all right as one can after months in jail and, on two occasions, days in solitary confinement (the first time, because he bent down to tie his shoelaces while the roll call was on, and the next because his fellow-inmates gave him a pillow). He is spending time with his wife (old sweetheart from his IIT days), four daughters, grandkids, siblings and in-laws. He is working with organisations that he helped build in the education and public health fields. He is also looking at the American judicial system and prison reform.

“I have just turned 70, so it’s time to be a little more reflective,” he says. “I am back in some of the institutions I founded, but not in a formal capacity. I don’t want that,” he tells BLink. “They are in a way like my children, so I’m going to keep nurturing them in whatever way I can.”

*****

Gupta remembers when it all started. He was at the Detroit airport in December 2009, on his way to Boston to see his granddaughters, when his assistant called. “There is a lawyer from Goldman Sachs on the line and he says he needs to speak with you right away,” she said.

“I was an easy target... I was a big fish,” Gupta writes. He points out that the conviction came at a time when the Occupy Wall Street movement was gaining ground, the US had gone through a financial crisis and the people were baying for blood — any top honcho’s blood.

But could someone — who had charted his own success so brilliantly in the dog-eat-dog corporate world — be such a helpless victim of circumstances, the pshawer asks. Because, I suppose, people make mistakes. Rajaratnam, for instance. “For the 1,000th time, I wished I had never crossed paths with Rajaratnam,” Gupta writes.

Yet, when he met Rajaratnam in prison, Gupta says he decided to forgive him and they ended up spending some matey time together behind bars — actions that some find curious.

“You shouldn’t hold a lot of anger in you,” he tells BLink now. “It would be easy to get angry at the system and somebody. But you should move on, forgive people you think you have disappointed, or who have disappointed you. That’s a big lesson. That’s a big lesson in terms of your own mental peace,” he says.

I have a question that I find difficult to ask. There is no pleasant way of saying this — how was jail? But Gupta is open about the experience — the despair that clouded him during his solitary confinement, his abiding friendships with people in jail, the somewhat sadistic guard, the bad food, his family visiting him — it is all there in the book.

But he was, Gupta writes, fairly content in jail. He had his dark moments, when he agonised over his mistakes. On the whole, though, he was “quite happy”. He walked for miles in the morning, played cards and Scrabble and started a book club and a bridge club. “There was a group of over-60 white guys with whom I’d eat breakfast and try to solve the world’s problems.”

What helped him, he says, was the memory of his father in jail. Ashwini Gupta, widely respected as a journalist and Gandhian, had been tortured in jail by the British during India’s freedom movement. His elder son rues how he spent time with him only after his father had fallen gravely ill.

“In my early childhood, I was a bit of a spoiled kid, you know. In my early teens I became much more responsible because my father became very sick. Then I spent a fair amount of time with my father,” he says. He would visit him in the hospital, walk on the grounds with him and discuss Robert Frost’s poemThe Road Not Taken.

In prison, he decided he would be guided by his father’s example. “I was determined to emerge a better and stronger person — physically, mentally and spiritually. My prison uniform would become my dhoti, and I would wear it with pride.”

He read the Gita and Tagore (the book’s title is from a Tagore poem). He listened to music, which, his old friends hold, is one of his long-standing interests. The head of an MNC once related to a journalist how he had requested Gupta, then his senior in school, to tutor him after class. Gupta had said he wouldn’t take any money from him, but would tutor him on one condition. “Only if you first learn a song from me,” he’d stipulated, and then gone on to teach him the Salil-Lata classicO Sajana.

Gupta, half-Bengali-and-half-Punjabi, also gives an eminently readable insight into a top executive’s life. He writes about his friendship with former US President Bill Clinton, whom he repeatedly defeated at Scrabble, and from whom he learnt a card game called “Oh Hell”. He mentions a corporate party where he was gifted an elephant.

What did he do with it? “Oh, it was rented,” he replies.

That world is behind him, but Gupta hasn’t hung up his suit. “You know, when I came out, I spent most of my time just getting back involved in society, and then spending a lot of time with family and friends and then writing the book,” he says.

But what now? “I will do more, but not for profit; I will also spend more time with the family; more time with myself,” Gupta replies.

And he will, quite possibly, remember his Frost:

“I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence…”

Published on April 05, 2019

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