R Srinivasan

Time we grew up as a nation

R. SRINIVASAN | Updated on March 12, 2018

Mr Raj Rajaratnam...criminal trial or soap opera?

Mr Rajat Gupta...criminal trial or soap opera?

If a Rajat Gupta is held guilty for insider trading, we cannot accept it. If an Indian film star is searched at a foreign airport, it’s racial profiling. We take offence too easily.

So, the Rajat Gupta trial is done and dusted. The former head of McKinsey and former board member of Goldman Sachs and Procter & Gamble has been found guilty of insider trading by a jury of his peers. That’s right, Rajat Gupta has been an American citizen since 1984. He faces sentencing in October, when he is likely to get anything up to 10 years in prison.

And the Indian media has gone ballistic. The trial itself was followed in the Indian media on a daily basis. And the verdict was reported more like a soap opera than a criminal trial.

One leading national daily even headlined the fact that some members of the jury were in tears when they held Gupta guilty.

Others reacted with shock and disbelief. Reams of newsprint were used to point out that the evidence was all circumstantial, that Rajat Gupta himself was not shown to have profited personally from any of the insider trading and that he was not found guilty in two of the six counts he was charged with.

It was pointed out that that there was no ‘smoking gun’. The needle of suspicion was pointed to the fact that the jury which convicted his partner in crime, Raj Rajaratnam, took two weeks to reach its verdict, even though it was amply demonstrated that Rajaratnam was guilty, and profited to the tune of millions from proven acts of insider trading, whereas Gupta’s jury took barely ten hours.

Indian vs US view

Again and again, the question was asked, often implicitly, but sometimes even explicitly — would Rajat Gupta have been singled out if he hadn’t been a rich, successful South Asian immigrant? Was Rajat Gupta being hunted for his race and ethnicity? Was Rajat Gupta being punished for rich, successful — and Indian?

Interestingly, the US media has been asking similar questions, but from a different perspective. Commentators there have wondered whether Rajat Gupta has become a victim of the times, a proxy for all the others who created the financial mess and destroyed the lives of millions of Americans, but cannot be punished. Forbes magazine pointed out that Iva Boesky, the Wall Street trader who hitherto held the record for punishment in an insider trading case, had been sentenced to only three years in prison, whereas Rajaratnam was sentenced to 11.

In fact, Rajaratnam got much more sympathetic play than even Gupta. Many pointed out that what Rajaratnam was doing was indistinguishable from what thousands of others did every day on Wall Street. That trading was actually all about turning information and analysis into money.

There were hints that Rajaratnam’s misdeeds would not have been seen as so heinous if the times had been different and the markets on a roll. Forbes magazine even dug out a December 19, 1987 report in the New York Times on the sentencing, where the prosecuting attorney, a certain Rudy Giuliani, was quoted expressing satisfaction, terming it a “heavy sentence” for a white collar crime.

“We can't seem to prosecute financial institutions or their executives,” wrote Michael Wolff in the Guardian, “but individual traders are good gets.”

From disbelief to jingoism

Contrast this with the angry, weepy, outraged coverage of the Gupta case. The underlying tone was one of disbelief. After all, Rajat Gupta was everything that the average Indian expects his role model to be. He was handsome. He was rich. He was smart. He was successful. Not merely successful by Indian yardsticks, but successful where it really matters — in the white man’s backyard. Ergo, he can do no wrong.

The reactions have ranged from disbelief — of the “I know him, how could he be a criminal” sort from business leaders, to the jingoistic “he’s being persecuted because he’s an Indian” kind of rage.

The coverage extended to Gupta and Rajaratnam in the Indian media reflects the foibles and failings of our society with disturbing accuracy.

There is, first and foremost, ‘lookism’. Good-looking people can do no wrong. Rajat Gupta, routinely described even in Western media as handsome ( New York magazine called him a ‘regal looking immigrant’) was the archetypal hero of Bollywood — handsome, fair-skinned, Bengali.

He contrasted sharply with the other accused, Rajaratnam. Rajaratnam had three strikes against him even before he came up to bat — he was dark, paunchy and bulging-eyed (the same New York magazine dubbed him ‘porcine’) and he was a Tamil. Not even an Indian Tamil, but a Sri Lankan Tamil, an outcast even in his native land. So Rajaratnam became the bad guy, the shifty Madrasi who tempted our hero into bad ways.

Rajaratnam, in fact, has been treated much more kindly by the American media. In an evocative interview with Rajaratnam in Newsweek, Suketu Mehta wrote: “Part of Rajaratnam’s narrative is that of a man from a smaller South Asian country seduced and betrayed by people from the Big Brother country.”

He cites the example of McKinsey executive and the man charged with providing insider information to him, Anil Kumar. Kumar had introduced him to Rajat Gupta. The two of them wanted to start an Indian School of Business in Hyderabad. “I gave them [the school] a million dollars,” Mehta quotes Rajaratnam as saying, “I later found out they never contributed any of their money, and are listed as the school’s founders.”

The other case

The Indian media’s inability to look objectively at issues which challenge our own self-created notion of ‘Indian-ness’ is demonstrated by the coverage of another, equally dramatic case involving another Indian American migrant, Dharuni Ravi. Ravi was accused of spying on his roommate’s homosexual encounter and bullying him with this, which, prosecutors argued, had led his roommate to commit suicide a few days later.

The fact that the jury had held Ravi guilty was reported, but the fact that the presiding judge had made a significant speech against the prosecution’s case, effectively throwing it out and reducing the sentence from 10 years in state prison to 30 days in a campus jail, was barely mentioned.

And have we had any comment about what the Ravi case tells us about our society? Ravi was at the opposite end of the Indian American spectrum, a recent immigrant studying in university. His ‘crime’ was one which is being routinely committed by tens of thousands of his cohorts back home — bullying (euphemistically called ragging), homophobism and the simple inability to deal with differentness.

As a nation, we are far too thin-skinned, and far too quick to take offence. If an Indian film star is searched at a foreign airport, it’s racial profiling.

If Norwegian childcare authorities refuse to adequately explain why they feel an autistic child had to be taken into care, it’s Western arrogance. If the ICC refuses to change its mind on the decision review system, it’s a white man’s conspiracy.

It’s time we grew up as a nation.


Published on June 27, 2012

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