In India everyone is dirty, except me of course!

Last Updated: Fri, Oct 26, 2012 21:24 hrs

When I met Rajat Gupta, the first thing that struck me was how very different he was from most successful Indians. He didn't smile broadly. He wasn't expansive, either in conversation or in body language. Indeed, quite the reverse. The contrast was stark; the room was filled with successful Indian-Americans – it was one of the launches of the American India Foundation in 2001, which Mr Gupta shepherded – and all around us men in thousand-dollar suits were smiling, dropping names and slapping backs. Mr Gupta, on the other hand, was talking carefully and quietly about how giving back to the community should be an impersonal activity, done for others and not yourself.

That belief was one of the reasons why I always thought Mr Gupta seemed the most un-Indian of successful Indians. Which is why, in many ways, the exact nature of his crime depresses me so much. He, essentially, broke the law in order to pass on a quiet tip or two to people – friends – whom he owed a favour. For many other successful Indians, that would be business as usual. From Mr Gupta, it's disappointing.

Mr Gupta's partner in crime, Raj Rajaratnam, is a very different man, and one far more representative. For Mr Gupta, his identity is incidental. Not for Mr Rajaratnam. He told a Newsweek interviewer that "in Wall Street... there's a Jewish mafia, a WASP mafia, an Irish mafia up in Boston." He was convinced that South Asians needed to stick together, tell each other things to help each other. True: that's how we do business best, after all. Still, he too feels betrayed: all of his South Asian-born associates wore a wire and sold him out to the prosecutors. None of the others did. (That just reveals another sordid side of us.)

But this column is less about these men and more about our reaction to their fall. They were hero-worshipped by many of us because they seemed to symbolise, for Indians and Indian-Americans, how special we were. In our holier-than-thou attitude, we were somehow better than both our state and other ethnicities. Oh, excellence doesn't come easily to us here in India, because we're dealing with corrupt institutions. Oh, excellence is easy there in America, even though we don't scratch each others' backs the way other ethnicities do. Thus Mr Rajaratnam, cultivating powerful South Asians in influential positions to further his insider knowledge, thought in justification that every other ethnicity does it.

And a variation of that is what most of the holier-than-thou Indian upper and middle classes imagine, too. Everyone else bribes, is corrupt, passes on tips. I'm better than them – but am forced to do what I must to keep up. And the fall of Messrs Rajaratnam and Gupta hasn't caused even the slightest questioning of this attitude. In fact, the silence of complicity is broken only by squeals of glee that the man who nabbed them, Preet Bharara, is of Indian descent, and so can replace Mr Gupta in the holier-than-thou pantheon.

Recently, at a seminar in Delhi, I was amazed when the well-heeled crowd angrily spoke out against how money distorted values – for "everybody else". Miraculous: 300 people, all as pure as the driven snow, while all around them was a slushpit of corruption. This is the time of Arvind Kejriwal, when holier-than-thou-ness is sanctified. No, this column isn't about Mr Kejriwal either, so you can keep reading. It's just me being Cassandra Perpetua, and muttering angrily that such delusions can't and won't last.

After all, who has been more holier-than-thou in the past year than the Indian media? In its dogged pursuit of corruption, real and imagined, in the political class, it has imagined itself Woodward, Bernstein and Mahatma Gandhi all rolled into one. Television anchors demanded answers to their inquisitions; op-ed writers praised the breaking of a supposed silence about corruption in high places. And on Thursday, we were treated to the less palatable flip side of that snottiness, as Naveen Jindal, revealed that some in the media had feet of highly corruptible clay.

Watching his sting of Zee News' editors – which the latter, amusingly, have tried to blame on him – is painful, especially when the journalists point out blithely that "everyone [in the media] is in the same business". Well, maybe they are, and maybe they aren't. But I certainly feel like I've heard that justification before. Most irritating is the irony of the situation: Mr Jindal, a Congress Member of Parliament whose commercial interests have benefited from the state's allocations of coal mines, isn't precisely a stranger to the benefits that flow from power. No doubt he, too, feels that everyone does it.

Media-bashing is a boring sport. But sometimes we make it easier, for example through the effortless distancing being carried out by the Bennett Coleman properties (Times of India: page 15, two inches, "extortion CD" in quotes; Times Now's Arnab Goswami, self-appointed spokesman for good journalism, to Mr Jindal: "This is a pretty personal fight, right?... Journalists don't believe in a self-preservation club... some of us, what we do, is with integrity"). Or when NDTV goes to town on the issue, without mentioning that Mr Jindal's father-in-law owns 14 per cent of the channel.

Of course, to many out there, this is merely more "proof" that all news is paid for, just like all politicians are corrupt or the entire private sector breaks laws habitually. You, of course, are holier than all of them. Everyone else is a bad apple. Sure. That's what Mr Gupta and Mr Jindal and Zee News all think, too. If everyone thinks it, it must be true.

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