IIT grad who was friends with Bill Clinton is now treading the road to redemption.
In the tiny world of India’s privileged elite, everything is circular. You can come right back to where you began. In the case of Rajat Gupta, former globetrotting managing director of consulting giant McKinsey & Company, a former director of Goldman Sachs and Procter & Gamble, general do-gooder, and recent inhabitant of various American detention centres, it is to the warm embrace of the Ananda Bazaar Patrika family.
His father Ashwini Kumar Gupta was sent to Delhi to set up the Capital edition of the now-defunct English newspaper Hindustan Standard. The then-editor in chief Ashok Sarkar’s grand-daughter Chiki is now publishing Gupta’s memoirs under her imprint, Juggernaut. Out in early 2019, she says it is “deeply honest, emotional and moving”.
Since serving his prison sentence for divulging corporate secrets to Raj Rajaratnam, the hedge fund titan indicted for insider trading, Rajat Gupta, 70, has been treading the long, hard road to redemption. From a rock-star welcome in Hyderabad at the Indian School of Business (ISB) he co-founded to a special invitation from old friend Prakash Padukone to his daughter Deepika’s wedding to fellow actor Ranveer Singh, from affectionate but low-key meetings with former prime minister Manmohan Singh to quiet coming-home parties with CEO friends, he has been finding his way back into heart of an exclusive club that was once proud to call him a member.
He has found particular warmth among IIT alumni, for whom he remains a hero – he was the first chairman of the global IIT organisation PanIIT, which was set up in 2001 with the goal of giving back to India. Their affiliated organisation, Wheels Global Foundation, is one of the few organisations of which he is still a chairman. At its annual fundraising gala at The Pierre, Taj New York, in 2017, more than 300 entrepreneurs, business leaders, scholars and dignitaries raised $2.4 million for the opportunity of a one-on-one with Gupta.
Home and the world
But will he, a former convict, ever again attain the heights of the past when he was friends with Bill Clinton at whose initiative he started the American India Foundation, was handpicked by Bill Gates to be on the advisory panel of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and on the board of The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and was a regular at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland?
A product of the Nehruvian education system that created managers for the world, hyphenated graduates of IIT-Harvard Business School, he was at home everywhere, out of place nowhere. He could be the suave businessman with the Hermes tie glad-handing world leaders or the Bengali babu in kurta pyjama, eating roganjosh and rice, a taste he developed over the years of his marriage to fellow IIT Delhi student Anita Mattoo. Two years junior to him, they first met in 1968 while performing in a one-act play and both reeling from the recent deaths of their mothers. They were married in 1973, when he returned from Harvard Business School and she graduated from IIT Delhi.
His relationships across the board, from industrialists to governments, were unparalleled, as was his ability to translate these into vast amounts of money that could be deployed for the greater good. He built two world-class institutions in India, the Indian School of Business with its aim of creating world-class management graduates, and the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), a public-private partnership aimed at creating public health professionals and strengthen research in India.
For PHFI, an initiative he was persuaded to lend his time and energy to by Barry Bloom, Harvard professor and global health pioneer, he raised almost Rs 80 crore from friends such as venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, HCL founders Shiv Nadar and Arjun Malhotra, philanthropists Uday Khemka and Rohini Nilekani – the central government raised Rs 65 crore while the Gates Foundation put up Rs 65 crore.
Gupta’s friend, Analjit Singh, founder chairman emeritus of Max Group, says: “All of us think of doing pro bono work for health and education after a drink or two. But few of us make the effort of schlepping for it 20 hours a day, travelling across the globe, getting things done.” He was perhaps the first to host him in India in 2016 –after Gupta served his almost two-year prison term – at his Dr A.P.J Abdul Kalam Road house, calling 20 close friends. “Almost everyone I called came out of respect for him,” he says. He believes Gupta has become a softer person. “It’s amazing how he has become so much more open, gentle, affectionate, thoughtful and relaxed. He has forgiven himself and forgotten those who he believes wronged him. He has bared his heart and is now ready to face the world again, when he could so easily have retreated into hiding. He admits he was wrong and is sorry for what he did. It takes a lot of courage to do that. And that comes from character and being the person he is.”
It is precisely this character that was Gupta’s greatest asset. Whether it was handling his family affairs – he has three siblings – after his father died when he was 16 (his mother died barely three years later) or travelling across the world opening doors and sealing partnerships to make a difference to India’s public health and education system, he was more than merely the first Indian-American to become the CEO of a global major. He was a man who had a vision of transformative change, setting up two institutions of note. So much so that at one point no less than N.R. Narayana Murthy had compared him to Jawaharlal Nehru in an article in Business Today.
Financial advisors’ dismay
His CEO friends in India are invested in him partly because he invested in them, emotionally, intellectually and financially. It wasn’t merely the advice his consultancy McKinsey & Company offered to companies run by them. In some cases, the relationships became more personal. Among the letters pleading for leniency initially, one from alternative healing guru Deepak Chopra revealed that Gupta had invested $250,000 in his daughter’s failed Internet start-up, and never tried to recoup the money.
Gupta’s wife Anita wrote a letter underlining this, which said: “He invested with anybody who came to him or was sent to him by friends without asking too many questions much to our financial advisors dismay. He could never imagine his friends or business associates could be involved in unlawful activities or would try to cheat him…. During the present crisis, a lot of his “good friends” have disappeared or cooperated against him in the hope of getting leniency and some who could be helpful did not step forward.”
The closest among these good friends was Anil Kumar, his former protégé at McKinsey, who cooperated against Gupta and got probation for giving Rajaratnam inside tips himself. Equally, his wife may have been referring to Rajaratnam, a flamboyant Sri Lankan with a penchant for smoking pot and throwing wild parties. Always an odd choice of friend for the sophisticated Gupta, the two fell out in 2008 after Gupta lost his entire $10 million investment in a fund run by Rajaratnam.
Honest mistake or fatal flaw?
That was the time Rajat Gupta was the toast of America’s corporate elite. He had a mansion in Westport, Connecticut, originally built by the mogul J.C. Penney, on a five-acre estate. He had a jet-setting lifestyle, four beautiful and accomplished daughters and additional homes in Colorado and Florida. His eldest daughter Geetanjali’s wedding to Nigerian ophthalmologist Chukwuemeka Nwanze was dubbed by some as the “wedding of the decade”. There were few doors to which he didn’t have a magic key.
While sentencing Gupta in court in 2012, Judge Jed S. Rakoff said of Gupta: “He is a good man. But the history of this country and the history of the world is full of examples of good men who did bad things”. Was it an honest mistake, a fatal flaw in his character, which could be just billionaire envy, or simply circumstantial evidence that trapped him?
His friends, current and former, are still divided. Some are steadfast and happy to continue endorsing him, some others, who are close to him, simply don’t want to “rake up the past yet again when the man has paid more than his price for something he allegedly did”. Yet others think hubris was his undoing and point to his speech at Columbia University quoted in an in-depth profile in The New York Times in 2013 by Anita Raghavan: “You have to watch out for it, because the more you have it, you get used to comforts, and you get used to, you know, big houses and vacation homes and going and doing whatever you want, and so it is very seductive. However much you say that you will not fall into the trap of it, you do fall into the trap of it.”
Management guru Nirmalya Kumar believes it was a clear case of Gupta feeling “why should people not as smart as me make more money than me? I never feel that. I chose to be an academic and it makes me happy even if one does not get rich being one”.
But as American tech entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa says: “You have to put Rajat in the context of the community that he was part of and the time. In those days, a few hundred people who lived very close to each other, and were brought together because they were different from Americans, hit the dot com jackpot and got very rich. They were competing with each other in the only way they could: by flaunting their wealth. Rajat’s sins were nothing compared to what are common in business and politics. He just got caught. He is a good human being at heart and deserves a second chance. He can still do a lot for the world.”
No grand plans
Gupta has failed in his effort to be reinstated in the McKinsey alumni directory, but in June this year, he and Deepak Chopra were invited to address the second annual IIT Bay Area Leadership Conference at the Santa Clara convention centre in California. Gupta spoke about the “extraordinary last six years”, adding “while I continue to fight the injustice in my case, I have to candidly admit that I made errors and misjudgments, and for that I take full responsibility”.
For Gupta, it’s not merely about rebuilding his reputation or reacquainting himself with life’s little freedoms. “There’s no grand plan. He just wants to be useful and relevant again,” says NIIT founder and chairman Rajendra Pawar, his junior by a year at IIT Delhi and his successor as General Secretary of Students Council. He first knew him in 1971 as the charismatic, adored and admired older boy and has stood firmly behind him all these years. He met him again when he sought the services of McKinsey for NIIT. They have been close since then, meeting often and collaborating extensively on creating ISB and its all-star cast board of pharma major Novartis’ former CEO Daniel Vasella, LVMH’s Bernard Arnault, Michael Dell, Anil Ambani, Y.C. Deveshwar, Adi Godrej, L.N. Mittal, N.R. Narayana Murthy, Rahul Bajaj, and Sunil Mittal. Through the entire process of conviction, says Pawar, “I never once doubted him”. “I continue to be amazed by his tenacity, his resilience, his equanimity. The Gita was his companion throughout his sentence, and you can see it in his lack of bitterness and resentment. When you see someone like him suffer then you understand the philosophy of karma.”
Pawar was one of many IIT batchmates and alumni who attended his daughter Aditi’s wedding at their Westport home in June this year. “It was wonderful and the big difference from Geetanjali’s wedding was that there were many more people and it was mostly his friends. All of us showed up to celebrate his homecoming and it was a really good affair.”
So perhaps this is his happily ever after? Modern School’s Rudra Award winner for student of the year for “most outstanding qualities of heart and mind” can claim that both are finally in alignment. Now, if he can only be satisfied with that.
The author is a senior journalist and was Editor of India Today between 2011 and 2014
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