- Caste: “A Punjabi Khatri wants to marry a Punjabi Khatri....”
- Class bias: “Middle-class Indians don’t worry about taxi drivers.”
- Betrayal: Anil Kumar is a “c****”; “The Americans stood their ground. Every bloody Indian cooperated—Goel, Khan, Kumar.”
- Duplicity: “I gave them [ISB] $1 million. Rajat Gupta, Anil Kumar never gave any.... And I’m not even a f****** Indian.”
As TV screens flashed images of Raj Rajaratnam, the US-based, Sri Lanka-born hedge fund manager sentenced to 11 years in prison for insider trading, his journey from success to disgrace could not have but struck a chord in India. Most successful Indians have similar ‘early’ narratives—they strike out against ‘the system’ and persist until making it. But what makes for a special resonance is the fact that Rajaratnam has been arrested the year Indians learned, first-hand, how the downfall of a wealthy man feels. For the first time, India has thrown executives, politicians and public figures in jail in cases related to corruption.
Into this mix, the disgraced Rajaratnam, once one of the posterboys of South Asian-American success, has thrown in another intriguing proposition. In an interview with Newsweek, he singles out his Indian former associates and friends as betrayers who cooperated with investigators. “The Americans stood their ground. Every bloody Indian cooperated—Goel, Khan, Kumar,” Rajaratnam says. He has much more to rant about the capitulation, as he sees it, of his Indian peers (see box).
Are Indians really as unreliable, backstabbing and shortsighted as Rajaratnam sees them? Some say his harsh words hold a mirror to Indian society today. That these adjectives somehow ring true at a time of multiple scams, controversies, conspiracy theories, witch-hunts, denials and counter-denials—a general air of malaise—at home. Are we then like this only?
Most Indian Americans contacted by Outlook refused to dignify Rajaratnam’s swipes at Indians with a response but his accusations have clearly touched a raw nerve. “Just because we do as we’re told by the legal authorities of this country doesn’t make us bad or undependable as people,” said an Indian American executive in New Jersey, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“Rajaratnam has been convicted on all 14 counts of insider trading, yet he has the gall to complain that the Indians didn’t stand by him,” one Silicon Valley-based Indian American entrepreneur fumed incredulously. He, like most others, is quick to point out that Indian Americans did not break any laws when they chose to cooperate against Rajaratnam. Yet, most grudgingly agree with a point he makes in his interview: that the Indians cooperated because of “the insecurity of being an immigrant”.
Resident Indians regularly bemoan how prone to nepotism, corruption and casteism India is. Rajaratnam’s speedy trial and the trotting pace of Gupta’s investigation are much envied. In India, even when confronted with evidence of malpractice (say, with the leaked conversations of former PR honcho Niira Radia), there are innumerable rebuttals, and even claims that such evidence was forged. A written confession of fraud, like Ramalingam Raju’s, led to condemnation and his arrest. But Raju still finds supporters outside of his family and friends—for instance, people who credit him with taking India’s IT service sector to “world stage”.
Arvind Rajagopal, who teaches media studies at New York University, says the caste system’s brute dominance has made Indians “intimately familiar with the idea of different rules for different people”. For instance, illegal mining comes to full public view, but since various political parties were linked to the case, a circular argument has ensued over who is “ultimately” responsible, leading public discourse nowhere. Clearly, there is an element of self-preservation behind such equivocation—“The effect on social mores is obviously ruinous when justice is denied and scandals are followed by inaction and deliberate forgetting,” Rajagopal says.
Contemporary responses to international events are similarly unfathomable. For instance, the Indian media often refers to the “war on terror”, an American import, without irony. Jyotirmaya Sharma, who teaches political science at Hyderabad University, says he often comes across similar conundrums. Once, he signed a petition his students grandly drew up, against “American Imperialism in Venezuela”. But they refused to protest against some Telangana supporters who had roughed up a fellow lecturer. This, Sharma feels, is typical of India: “Without doubt we Indians love abstractions, and we interpret citizenship conveniently. We want to protest, go on strike but we demand our salary.”
Even using the blanket term “corruption” amounts to taking refuge in cliche, experts insist. “A lot of it (so-called corruption) is just nepotism,” points out sociologist Shiv Visvanathan. Looking at Rajaratnam’s missives through the lens of Bollywood film Kaante, in which a potential gang of criminals discusses how every ethnic group has its criminal gang—such as the Japanese Yakuza or Chinese Tongs—while the Indians have nothing similar, Visvanathan says, “While the rule of law operates, ethnicity and corruption also work. In almost all sectors, ‘the club’ in America functions like caste in India...the Rajaratnam picture has to be seen in a more nuanced way: a man expressing his anxieties while providing a social critique of the system.”
The truth is, as much as anyone else, Indians do appreciate wrongdoing being conclusively exposed. “Any confusion on the part of ordinary people, I think, are a result of Gresham’s Law operating in the public sphere,” says Rajagopal. Gresham’s Law, propounded in the 16th century, states that bad money drives out good money, if the government sets the exchange rate. The implication is that the state has failed to enforce the exchange rate between truth and falsehood.
Take the “confusion” surrounding the 2G scam—did it really happen, considering the extent of loss to exchequer is not just contested, it’s even called “notional”? And then, following the claim of “notional” loss, nothing less than a witch-hunt has been launched by the government against members of the Anna Hazare-led group fighting for a strong anti-corruption law.
Tunku Varadarajan, editor of Newsweek, says while the extent of racism against South Asians is “greatly exaggerated”, Rajaratnam’s story, as told to Newsweek, is clearly a self-serving one. “How could it be otherwise? His ass, as they say in the US, is on the line.” That may well be so. But for the moment, Rajaratnam leaves behind a cloud of bitterness and innuendo against Indian Americans. For India, struggling with its own identity, the more important question would be: Now that a Bernie Madoff, Raj Rajaratnam or Rajat Gupta can exist in the US, how can anyone say India is so different?
By Pragya Singh with Ashish Kumar Sen in Washington