What happened to India's NRI poster boys?

Aug 16, 2012, 08:04 IST | Malavika Sangghvi

Wherever we have gone these past few days there's been a collective sigh of dismay about the plight of Fareed Zakaria, the erstwhile journalist of Time and CNN international.

>> Wherever we have gone these past few days there’s been a collective sigh of dismay about the plight of Fareed Zakaria, the erstwhile journalist of Time and CNN international. This is always followed by ‘Poor Fareed’ and depending on the geography of the person uttering the words, an exclamation, which precedes ‘What was he thinking?’ The geography, of course, has to do with which station of the North-South Mumbai axis these words emanate from: Southwards of Haji Ali where young Zakaria attended the Cathedral school and resided in a Minister’s bungalow on Carmichael Road, the sympathy for one of Mumbai’s own — Mumbaicha mulga — the empathy afforded to the non–residential India‘s poster boy is palpable. However, the further away you drive from Churchgate, the dismay begins to peter out. We can bet you in Mumbra they probably don’t care either ways that one of India’s brightest young men have had to face such an ignominious exit in what until then was a brilliant career.

 Rajat Gupta
Sharing the info: Rajat Gupta, the director of Goldman Sachs, was found guilty of insider trading

On the face of it and as far as we are concerned, Zakaria’s misdemeanour does not add up to much. Cutting corners, taking a short cut, not checking the source of one’s research material is an occupational hazard — not unknown in journalistic circles. With every day bringing in newer technologies it can even be said that it is astonishing that more people have not been caught on the wrong side of the plagiarism divide. To have an intern who feeds you material for your columns and TV shows and who may not be well schooled in the propriety of intellectual property rights is not unimaginable.

David Davidar
Hasty exit: David Davidar, author and Penguin Canada president, was forced to quit when a complaint of sexual harassment was made against him 

Busy media maven that he is, it is pretty certain that Zakaria used the sentences from the New Yorker article assuming that they were un-sourced and originally generated by his intern. It is naive to think that he would — a seasoned and respectable journalist — need to ‘copy’ some pretty pedestrian syntax and try and pass it off on his own. Then why apologise and admit that he had committed a terrible mistake? Our view is that Zakaria’s unstinting apology was a tactical one.

Whose words were those? Fareed Zakaria admitted to plagiarising a column from the New Yorker. Following the admission, CNN International and Time dropped him

He knew that he’d been dealt a tough hand that trying to wriggle out of the situation by telling the truth that it had been the intern’s fault would only have made him look more foolish. And the gentleman that he is, he stepped up manfully to the blame. No, as far as we are concerned, Zakaria has acquitted himself well in this unfortunate episode.

Our concern isn’t if Fatima and Rafeeq’s brilliant son will be reinstated in both his former establishments and that his career will once again soar to great heights; our concern is for the impact this episode has had on our own psyche and how we view ourselves and the world views us and our ethical framework.

What moral force do we project when three of India’s celebrated professionals have recently and in quick succession faced such ignoble ends to their careers abroad? Think about it: David Davidar, swashbuckling publisher whose rise up the Penguin hierarchy has been as meteoric as it has been irrepressible. Forced to make a hasty exit when charges of sexual harassment made his staying on at his job untenable as head of Penguin’s Canada operations. Rajat Gupta, India’s management whiz kid, who forged a unique path up the Mckinsey ladder. Being made a partner early on in his career and then becoming the first non-American to head the international consultancy firm-charged with insider trading of the worst kind. Gupta who schmoozed with heads of State and billionaires, who had achieved the American dream and more.

What on earth is happening to India’s NRI poster boys? How did they manage to stray so far off their cherished ideals and allow themselves to be ensnared in incidents of cheating, sexual misbehaviour and plagiarism? And what does it say about us as a nation?

We write this on Independence Day when we are expected to pause and ponder on our past and path. National pride and jingoistic fervour are invoked at every street corner and in every home. Poems that exhort the citizens to aspire to good and great values and deeds are the mantra of the day as are examples from history of our leaders and their unsurpassed ethical character. And yet, we have before us three sterling examples of Indians who having established our Tricolour in some of the world’s most competitive environments — have failed miserably and extravagantly in the business of moral character. What lessons do we take away from these three men? People of far more credibility and learning have and will judge their cases. Punishments have and will be apportioned. And justice has and will be done. Whether all three of them ought to be given the benefit of doubt can be debated.

But, here on a day when a generation of brilliant Indian men and women outsmarted the world’s most powerful nation, where will and intelligence and moral force were pitted against huge resources and military power, the lesson we must learn notwithstanding Gupta, Davidar and Zakaria is of our own moral superiority, nobility and national pride. Many have risen and many have fallen, the tide of humanity ebbs and flows like the great Ganga herself. And each time there is a blockage or a clogging or an obstruction, we must gather up and rise again. Sixty-five years ago we triumphed over foreign might and proved that we were made of a sterling mettle. We must do so again.  

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