Cecil the Lion and the Art of Judgment

Do you have good judgment? How do you teach it?

Cecil the Lion and the Art of Good Judgment


My uncle Sivaramakrishnan called from Mumbai this morning stating that he wanted to ‘capture Twitter.’  

Sivaramakrishnan-mama is called SRK by neighbours in his largely Gujarati housing complex, a fact that he accepts with mixed feelings. “I can’t expect a Shah or a Patel with their one syllable names to wrap their tongue around Sivaramakrishnan,” he says philosophically.  “I don’t even tell them that my full name is Sivaramakrishna Sundaram.  They will stop sending theplas and your aunt is addicted to them.”

The other problem is that every time someone introduces him as “our dear SRK,” people expect Shah Rukh Khan, not a short, plump, balding bespectacled Sivaramakrishnan. 

SRK-Mama is an active Rotarian.  He has become interested in Twitter because he feels that it will increase his profile.  He harbours political ambitions and needs a platform.  The fact that he has to ask me for help shows how desperate he is.  I have some 500 followers and have no clue as to how to grow them.  

“Can’t I buy Twitter followers like how politicians buy votes?” asked SRK-Mama.

“Twitter is like catching a tiger by the tail,” I replied sagely.  “Look at how they are shaming that dentist who shot Cecil the Lion on social media.  He will go bankrupt.”

“There is no question of me shooting a lion.  After all, I am vegetarian.  If anything, I will let the lion eat me,” SRK-Mama said piously.

I chewed a “Bite Me” cupcake morosely.  SRK-Mama had caught me on a bad day.  I don’t know if you read Anita Raghavan’s excellent piece about Rajat Gupta serving jail time.  I did and it raised lots of questions about judgment and destiny.  Gupta, everyone will tell you—and many have—is a brilliant leader, thoughtful family man, and a large-hearted philanthropist.  He attributes his fall from grace to “destiny” in the article.  Mostly, it was bad judgment.  He made a series of small choices about friendships and notions of wealth that led to one catastrophic mistake.  But here is the nub and this is what got me to chew the cupcake morosely: such a scenario could happen to you or I. 

“Do you have good judgment, SRK Mama?” I asked.  

He paused chewing his murukku and breathed nasally over the phone line.  “You see, ma, people of my generation are not trained to have good judgment.  How can you learn good judgment if the biggest decision of your life—your life partner—is chosen for you in an arranged marriage? I didn’t even seen your aunt before I married her.  Where is the question of good judgment?”

The dictionary says that judgment is the ability to make “considered decisions.”  It also says that judgment is a “misfortune or calamity viewed as a divine punishment.”  The former leads to the latter, I guess.  

Judgment can also seem like a crapshoot.  Most people who make catastrophic mistakes rarely realize that they are doing so while in action: witness fashion designer John Galliano who was caught on video spewing anti-Semitic hate while under the influence of drugs and alcohol; witness Justine Sacco, the South African PR professional who blithely tweeted about Africans and AIDS and lost her job.  Or Rajat Gupta who thought he was taking a call in the middle of a board meeting, little realizing that it would take him to jail.  In this age when anything you do can be videotaped, shared, or tweeted, bad judgment calls can be magnified and amplified like never before. Worst of all, you are not allowed to lick your wounds in private.  And here was SRK-Mama, wanting to dive right in.

“Do you know people who have thousands of Twitter followers, and if so, how did they achieve it?” he asked, sounding like an engineering entrance exam.

I actually know several people who have over 35,000 Twitter followers.  Many of them are obsessing about how to double these followers, while simultaneously outraged that people who aren’t as good as them have more followers.  Meanwhile, their spouses complain that they are “addicted” to Twitter.   

The literature on how to develop good judgment is scarce and nebulous mostly because there is no fool-proof method of cultivating good judgment.  It isn’t as clean cut as tidying up a room using Japanese organizing consultant Marie Kondo’s rule of keeping only those objects that give you joy.  Judgment is messy; has little to do with intelligence; happens all the time, not as a rehearsal but as a live-stream; and can frequently go wrong at innocuous moments.  Then how do you cover yourself? How do you reduce the odds of bad judgment? Here is my list that is in progress.

1. Eliminate distractions.  Don’t multitask.  Bad judgments happen when you aren’t paying attention; when you are preoccupied with something else. 

2. Cultivate people you don’t like because they think differently from you.  This will force you to question your assumptions; and assumption, to quote the immortal lines of John Maclane in the movie, Die Hard, is the “mother of all f*^$ ups.”

3. Try your best to tame your ego.  A lot of bad judgment calls happen when you are feeling like the master of the universe; when your ego is so puffed up with pride that you cannot see the hurricane that is coming straight at you— to hit you in the face.

In view of all this, I tried to give SRK-Mama some advice.

“Don’t get on social media,” I said.  “You are a contented man.  Twitter will spoil your peace of mind.  You will start comparing yourself unnecessarily with people who have no relevance to your life.  And feel like a loser in the bargain.”

“How does Chandraayan the Lion sound?” he asked.  “I am a Leo.  A lion.  Instead of Cecil the Lion as my Twitter name, why not give it an Indian twist?”

I sighed.  There was no point protecting an octogenarian from the savage mores of the online universe.  It was a jungle out there and Chandraayan the Lion would have to learn to fend for himself. 

Oh, and if you happen to stumble upon the aforementioned Chandraayan the Lion, follow him, will you? Just don’t shoot him down.


Shoba Narayan is looking forward to reading the book that Rajat Gupta is purportedly writing in prison.  She hopes that it will talk about judgement calls.  Instagram @shobanarayan.  Twitter @shobanarayan

Be the woman of your choice

The piece below had the following comment from a reader.
More than KV Kamath, the credit in ICICI should go to N Vaghul. The environment was conducive for the growth of women managers and the necessary flexibility was extended to women. They were given leadership roles during his tenure and by the time KVK came in most of them (lalita, kalpana, Chanda, Shikha, renuka et al) were in very senior positions. Of course, it is to KVKs credit that he took things to their logical conclusion and other women managers rose to prominence as well. Recently a global fund manager from US ranked that in all his experience ICICI is probably the most gender friendly corporation in the world!

Be the woman of your choice
How can the rest of us emulate the women who have risen high in a male-dominated?

Shoba Narayan

It has been a great few weeks for women. Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize, in literature. Malala Yousafzai didn’t. She is young. If she stays the course, she can earn it in the coming years. The Nobel committee—perhaps smarting from 2009 when they gave the Nobel Peace Prize too early to the US President Barack Obama, who didn’t deserve it then and hasn’t done much to deserve it since—gave it instead to an organization so obscure nobody has even heard of its acronym—OPCW. Janet Yellen will likely be confirmed as the first female chair in the Federal Reserve’s 100-year history.
India’s 206-year old State Bank of India recently got its first female head, Arundhati Bhattacharya. Should he wish to, one of chairman Cyrus Mistry’s legacies could be mentoring and promoting women within the upper echelons of the Tata group, something that no Indian man in a position of power, save ICICI Bank chairman K.V. Kamath, has done.
The good news continues on the education front. Elite American universities are doing a lot of soul-searching about inclusion. Harvard Business School (HBS), under dean Nitin Nohria, just completed an ambitious “gender makeover” programme where it tried to answer the question: Why were women who entered with the same grades and scores as men falling behind during the course of the HBS programme? Under Maria Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd College, women enrolments in its computer science programme went from 10% of the class in 2006 to 48% this year. In fact, most of the top US schools, including Harvard, Princeton, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Wellesley, University of Pennsylvania, and my own alma mater, Mount Holyoke, all have (or have just had) female presidents. This is not the case with the Indian Institutes of Technology or Indian Institutes of Management.
In a bow to this issue, I must mention the sad news of the demise of María de Villota—a trailblazing former Formula One driver, who died last week in Seville, Spain. How did she rise high in a male-dominated sport? How did Yellen and Bhattacharya do it? How can the rest of us emulate them?
India has about 30% women in the workforce, but this shameful statistic includes vast sections of society who are not the target of this piece. The target of this piece is much more modest: if you are a Mint Lounge reader who doesn’t work or you have a wife/sister/daughter who doesn’t work, this piece is for you. Why aren’t these women working?
There are many reasons why women drop out of the workforce, or don’t enter or re-enter it. Financial security is one culprit; raising children is another. Have you heard this line before? Have you uttered it? “My husband works such long hours. I have to stay home with the kids”.
This “Mommy Myth”, as books call it, looms large in the minds of women. They truly believe that their children will turn out better if they are home. I would like to suggest that this is not the case.
The factors that create successful individuals are complex. You’ll have to begin by defining success. Is it an achievement in the worldly sense or about integrity and character? Each requires a different approach.Sh
Most successful Silicon Valley (US) companies are run by ruthless, self-absorbed men who lack empathy and compassion. Are these the kinds of individuals that you would like to raise—and nothing wrong with wishing that your son or daughter turns out to be a Twitter founder like Jack Dorsey or Evan Williams, both of whom brushed out co-creator Noah Glass from the equation without compunction.
When moms stay home, what is the end-goal? If you want a high-achieving son, having an absent or estranged father seems to help: witness Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos, former US president Bill Clinton, Obama, and the late founder of Apple Inc. Steve Jobs. Then again, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, Microsoft creator Bill Gates, Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg and former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton all grew up in stable homes. Which of these environments do you recreate and will it presuppose greatness? Some, like psychologist Steven Pinker, argue that it is all genetics anyway. In his book The Blank Slate, Pinker suggests that a lot of our character and personality is because of our genes, something that Freakonomics author and economist Steven Levitt substantiates. In a provocative piece: “Do Parents Matter?”, Levitt and his co-author say that letting children watch television for hours does nothing to reduce their intelligence. “Parenting technique is highly overrated,” they argue. Reading to them at bedtime does little to increase their IQ either. So parents, particularly mothers, can relax and do the things that they want to instead of doing it “because it is good for the child”, etc.
Staying home to shape your child’s character is a dubious proposition at best and doesn’t account for future events. Circumstances can prod people into greatness, or they can cause great people to stumble and fall like former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. director Rajat Gupta. Some part of it has to do with dumb luck or destiny. Geography is an influencer: People who had a peripatetic childhood are different from those who stay in one place.
Perhaps it is time to accept that parents, specifically mothers, are just one cog in the wheel of a child’s life. Our contributions are more modest than we would like to believe. If you accept this argument, the only remaining question is: What do you want to do? Not you as a mother, daughter, sister or spouse, but you as an individual who happens to be a woman. Choose your bliss because the cliché is true: You have only one life to live.
Shoba Narayan’s bliss is morning coffee on a jasmine-scented swing with Raga Hamsadhwani in the background.

Being at the other side of the firing line

It is weird. Some weeks ago, on the back of a column I did for Mint about Rajat Gupta, a journalist from Bloomberg/Businessweek called me. He sounded like my (very funny) cousin in Washington D.C. so I kinda took to him immediately even though we had never met. He wanted to interview me about what I had written about Rajat Gupta. We talked for say 20 minutes. And now I find myself being quoted in several articles on Rajat Gupta. It isn’t a particularly nice feeling because some of the quotes have been taken out of context. One in particular, which appeared in a story that made it to Mint’s front page, made me wince. It says that I was an acquaintance of Rajat Gupta, which I am not. My quote was pretty sappy too, something about him being “chatty.” I don’t want to put any other journalist in trouble, but my recollection of our conversation is that Bloomberg was after a description of what Rajat Gupta was doing in the Bangalore IPL cricket match where I happened to be. So the questions were like, “What was he doing?” and Was he relaxed and “Was he talking to people?” and I am sure I said something like “Yeah, he seemed pretty relaxed.” and “Yeah, he was chatty.” All of which I understand, having “slotted” certain quotes in certain “locations” in a story; and also having asked sources leading questions to get that particular quote. But it is strange to be on the other side of an interview.

Lessons for Life: new podcast series

Aditya Mhatre of the Indicast Podcast Network emailed me after a Mint column about the podcasts I listen to. He introduced me to his podcast network at The Indicast and helped me learn how to do a podcast. We talked about formats and brainstormed about ideas. I’d like to do humour but that’s very hard. Aditya (even though I’ve never met him) generously offered to host my podcasts on his network. Yesterday, while walking my dog, I called him impulsively and told him that I had an idea for a podcast but wasn’t sure it would fly. It’s called Lessons from Everyday Life, and like my column for Mint, I use events and people as a springboard for ideas. We recorded this podcast the same evening. At 10 PM, Aditya called me up on Skype and I spoke into it. There were iterations. When I faltered over sentences, I would just say, “i’d like to redo that,” and repeat it. All the bad stuff has been edited out.

I have miles to go and need to figure out my tone, attitude, humour, confidence and audio=manner. But this is a start. I’d love feedback and having grown up with boys, I have a fairly thick skin. So please, hammer away.

The piece at Indicast’s website

I was also taught how to embed it in my website, so here it is. For now, Aditya and I have a very loose arrangement– actually no arrangement, no contract, nothing. I am doing this to get better at it and he is doing it…well, I don’t know why he is hosting my podcasts.

Lessons in Rajat Gupta’s phone call for Mint Lounge

Here is a podcast that I did right after the Rajat Gupta tapes leaked for Indicast.

Here is a column I wrote about Gupta.  I must have re-written this piece a million times. Here it is at Mint’s page.

Here it is, copied below.

There is a Sanskrit saying that I grew up hearing, Vinasha kaleshu viparitha buddhi. My grandfather used it to sketch out doomsday scenarios, the idea being that as one’s doom approaches, one’s mind works perversely like Ravana when he kidnapped Sita or Duryodhan before the Mahabharat. What fascinated me was the corollary. If your mind works perversely in bad times, can you avert the bad times by adjusting your mind and your behaviour? The original phrase is not predictive. It is fatalistic and talks about a certain doom. But could it be watered down somewhat and applied predictively to prevent mistakes? Let me explain.

Why would a person who has spent a lifetime and a stellar career keeping client confidences break off from a board meeting to make a call to a hedge fund manager? If it was a misstep, could he have somehow intuited it and stopped himself? Perhaps he was simply returning a phone call that he didn’t need to at that moment? Could he have realized that his mind was playing perverse tricks on him; that he was making avoidable mistakes?

Is Rajat Gupta culpable? That’s for the US federal court to decide in the highly watched insider trading case against the billionaire founder of the Galleon Group, Raj Rajaratnam. The word on the street is that Gupta may have been guilty of “over-socializing”, but nothing more. The more interesting question is this: Why now? Why did this happen to Gupta now, after retirement, especially since, as he has said, he spent a career being discreet? As Gupta wrote in his impassioned letter to the dean of the Indian School of Business (ISB), which he co-founded: “I have spent my entire professional career zealously guarding the confidences of my clients. There is no reason for me to suddenly deviate from a lifetime of probity and honour.”
I don’t follow astrology, but I don’t dismiss it either. Astrology claims to let us know when we are going through bad times and offers palliative measures such as wearing certain gemstones. But you don’t need astrology for that. Each of us can tell when we are going through a bad period. Most of us blame others or external events for our misfortunes and in many instances, that is the case. Corporate lobbyist Niira Radia didn’t know that her phone calls were being tapped and even adding that numerological extra “I” to her name didn’t prevent it. The flip side is that wrong-doing, at least in the case of usually honourable people, can begin with an honest mistake that then snowballs out of control. It is possible to catch this snowball to face up to your mistakes, but that takes attention, courage, and a certain amount of wisdom. You could withdraw, publicly admit wrong-doing and change your actions. This, to me, is the most compelling idea in that ancient Sanskrit phrase, and indeed in all of astrology: predictive prevention. Change your behaviour and change future events. US presidential history is rife with examples of powerful men who were going through a bad phase and compounded it through their actions—Nixon’s Watergate cover-up; Clinton’s denials about Lewinsky; Reagan during the Iran-Contra affair. During bad times, your mind behaves perversely. These men could have changed history, and prevented their own downfall, had they caught themselves, as Obama did in the aftermath of his pastor Jeremiah Wright’s inflammatory rhetoric.

Although I have admired him from afar, I have encountered Gupta only twice. The first was eight years ago at the home of a friend who threw a book party for me, and had invited the entire “Westchester set”, as we called the CEOs and industry titans who lived in Westchester County, New York. Gupta was there, as was PepsiCo head Indra Nooyi with her husband and daughters, as was the wife of Berkshire Hathaway’s Jain. Dressed in relaxed Sunday slacks, Gupta was charming and gracious to me, a novice author.

The second time was two weeks ago, in Bangalore. I spotted him at the VIP enclave in the Chinnaswamy Stadium at the start of the England-India cricket match that ended in a tie. Gupta was with Parag Saxena, with whom he co-founded New Silk Route Partners, an Asia-focused growth capital fund. Gupta looked as dapper and distinguished as ever. If he was worried about what would transpire the following week, he didn’t show it.

The coming weeks will reveal exactly what the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) knows about this case. In his letter to the ISB, Gupta has stated that there are no transcripts of his conversation with Rajaratnam and that relations between him and the hedge fund manager were “strained” because he had lost his entire $10 million (around Rs45 crore) investment in one of the hedge funds run by Galleon. Gupta will defend himself “vigorously”, and may come out innocent. But in the cut-throat world of global business, he has already been tainted by association and that will affect the rest of his life.

To me, the most haunting question is this: Was this whole thing preventable? If Gupta had caught himself acting out of character (the whole “perverse mind” syndrome that the verse describes), could he have stopped himself from making that phone call? Or does the lure of power and money change people in a fundamental way? Of the two, the latter is the scarier scenario.

For his sake and for India’s, Shoba Narayan hopes that Rajat Gupta is proven innocent. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

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Manmohan Today 12:56 PM
The author starts the article with a phrase ” word on the street “. Is the autor competent enough to know the happenings on the street. Is she a beat correspondent on Dalal Street / Wall street ? What is her experience with respect to stock market reporting. What made her to masquerade as an expert Street reporter when she absolutely has no experience on business / stock market reporting. Such a blatantly partisan article should not have been published.
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Good_pwa Today 07:20 AM
Still a ‘novice author’, perhaps?! The article I thought was more about the writer attending the book/dinner party with the ‘Westchester Set’ in USA!! Such a pity..
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Hari Parmeshwar Today 12:24 AM
I think columnists must refrain from writing on things which they do not understand. Business is a specialized field and so its followers have perfected the art of being simultaneously crafty one moment and innocent at another moment. Somewhere in the higher echelons of board rooms and flights and five star hotels basics are abandoned. More skeletons will tumble from his cupboard if journalists do some proper investigation rather than holding a candle for him.
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Sokradhar Today 12:15 AM
Why would a person who has spent a lifetime and a stellar career keeping client confidences break off from a board meeting to make a call to a hedge fund manager?

Did he? All we know from SEC allegations is that he passed on the tips after conference calls…
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Robert Yesterday 05:57 PM
In the US we call this a slam dunk. The evidence against Gupta is overwhelming.Had there been no audio tapes the evidence could be circumstantial. Both The giver of information and receiver of information knew that he is violating his fidiuciary duty as a board member in divulging non public information.Had Rajratnam not acted immediately Gupta could have been given the benefit of doubt.A million dollars was realized overnight by this tip. i cant understand how anybody can view this differently. How Gupta benefited will eventually be found, swiss bank accounts, money deposited in somebody else’s name etc., a method used by his close friend Anil Kumar at Mc Kinsey.
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Surajb Yesterday 02:54 PM
What the…? Nixon etc. Could have changed their behaviour? Demented at best! Watergate vs. Insider trading? Are you kidding me? RG was getting money for his tips, and Raj was busy giving the industry and south asians a bad name. You need to know the depth of this charges- a chance encounter at some mixer doesn’t qualify you to expound nonsense on such a big issue. Just because someone smiled at you doesn’t mean he is a great guy. I can understand the motivation and the surprise… but puhleease!
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Surajb Yesterday 12:59 PM
What the…? This article is demented at best. Comparing Nixon’s Watergate with this insider trading scandal is idiotic. RG was taking money for the tips- that’s a little more involved than returning someone’s call or ‘socializing’. And Raj was busy giving south asians and the industry a bad name. Clearly the author lacks the understanding to appreciate the extent of these charges. Just because you met some corporate hot shot at some mixer a decade ago doesnt make you an authority on the subject!
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Chutia Rahi Yesterday 08:08 AM
How was the para on the Westchester set relevant except for showing off the author’s name dropping class? Wannabe!
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Rahul Yesterday 03:25 AM
y r u praying for him ,such a biased article from author ,shows the falling standards of indian media ,if a rich man makes a mistake his frnds write column defending him and praying for him ,

nd how is india’s pride related to rajat,its like indira is india or india is indira

such a juvenile piece of writing ,if a poor guy is caught ,he will be in jail froever his life ,this is real india where law is only for poor and rich ppl get bail since ED didnt file case properly

i hope USA punishes him if he is guiltly,USA law is not available for selling like in india,
Like Reply

Jagan Yesterday 12:14 AM
India has nothing to loose even if Mr. Gupta is proved guilty. There are blacksheeps in every country. Perhaps Mr. Gupta’s personal credibility & the institutions that he is associated with will take a beating if he is proved guilty.
Like Reply

Hmmm 03/11/2011 11:53 PM
The only lesson to learn from Gupta’s phone call is Everybody has a price, pay then and they will talk…..and talk like a canary.
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Dinesh 03/11/2011 11:53 PM
I don’t get why “oversocializing” is termed as the cause of Mr Gupta’s misdeeds.It is like covering a molestation attempt by calling it “overlusting “. Either you do right or wrong . Information has been leaked causing illegitimate benefit to Galleon.Whether it was leaked consciously or unconsciously ,doesn’t matter.
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Anadianant 03/11/2011 11:27 PM
I find commentary in the Indian press, even by “famous” names terribly dis-ingenuous or down-right under-informed. Is that by design or are we just socially engineered to accept slop as a seven course meal? My question is not rhetorical at all.
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Alaexin 03/11/2011 11:25 PM
No one going to read your story after a few sentence. Totally Boring
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Rajasekhar Reddy P. 03/11/2011 10:54 PM
Shoba, Kudoos to you! well wriiten article. Let God be with him and his family. I thank him and his team with bottom of my heart for services they provided in setting-up ISB in Hyderabad…Rajasekhar Reddy Pochampally
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ronin 03/11/2011 10:39 PM
let the law take its course – as of now it looks like deliberate insider trading – he may have made a career of keeping client confidences (of course he was paid handsomely for it) – but perhaps the fees for being an independent director were not adequate reward in his mind and helping galleon to recover the $10 million that he personally lost was uppermost in his mind – vinaaha kaala vipreeta buddhi indeed – we cannot know a man’s integrity from his rise – but we can gain an insight from his fall – let it be a lesson to all the rising stars – its never to late to lose your way on the slippery slope of less than ethical behaviour…
Like Reply

Sgoel31 03/11/2011 09:25 PM
I don’t think this is a case of honest mistake. It is a case of guilty finally being trapped.
Like Reply

Cobra 03/11/2011 06:25 PM
Let people be judged by their power their individual character. That should have nothing to do stereotyping the rest – positively/negatively.
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AK 03/11/2011 01:43 PM
“For his sake and for India’s, Shoba Narayan hopes that Rajat Gupta is proven innocent”

Simply ludicrous ! How on earth are India’s fortunes tied to those of Rajat Gupta’s is beyond me. India is much larger that one individual that too who’s professional career has been based mostly in the US. This is the first and only reference I’m seeing to India in this entire episode. I understand that the author knows Gupta but such a ridiculously hyperbolic statement serves no purpose.
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Exceller 03/11/2011 12:35 PM
Good Article. However the way the Rajaratnam’s case is unforlding, the news does not look good for Rajat Gupta. None of the US corporations will touch him for any board positions any more. Unfortunately for Rajat, the case is in NY city and not in Hyderabad ;-).Sooner or later I expect people will start withdrawing money from his Hedge fund firm “New Silk Route”. I predicts, this hedeg fund too will fold in a couple of years.
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