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An emotional response

The reaction to Rajat Gupta’s sentence here shows our cavalier attitude to crime, writes Usha Subramanian.

india Updated: Oct 29, 2012 11:12 IST

After a court in the United States sentenced Indo-American business leader Rajat Gupta last week to two years in prison for insider trading, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, chairman and managing director, Biocon Limited tweeted: “He has paid a lofty price for a brief error of judgement — he deserved a softer sentence…” But a quick read of the news stories on the case shows how over one year Gupta had on at least four different occasions passed on insider information to the founder of a hedge fund company, resulting in enormous profits to the latter at the expense of a less-than-informed public.

So can we call this a “brief error of judgement”? That Gupta did not personally benefit financially is no expiation. Then there are some others who are giving another ingenious excuse: “The entire Indian stock market thrives on it (tipping)…” This is like Indian politicians justifying corruption as a universal phenomenon.

In contrast, a foreign agency article on Gupta’s case published on the day of the judgement refers to the accused’s “blatant abuse of confidences” and “egregious betrayals” that deserved “stiff punishment, despite… his big heart and helping hand.” These conflicting responses on the case reflect the different approaches taken by the West and India on crimes like these. We allow personal feelings to interfere in our judgements of public misconduct. That Gupta has an exemplary track record, both professional and personal, that he has made a positive difference to so many strangers’ lives with his generosity and reaching out, cannot condone the preferential treatment he gave to one individual, flouting business ethics in the most flagrant manner. Family, friend, personal or community benefactor, powerful connections, power wielders — are these grounds enough to let people off the hook, irrespective of the nature or gravity of the wrongdoing? While every day offers us a new scam opera with hardly any action following suit, Gupta’s conviction, albeit subject to appeal, is a fresh reminder of how the law is, by and large, allowed to function impartially and lawfully and speedily in other countries.

Joe Keller, the central character in Arthur Miller’s play All My Sons, is the classic case of a good father and husband who betrays public trust and pays a hefty, sorry, “lofty” price for it. He is a successful, middle-aged, self-made man who has done a terrible thing... should he be sentenced or not? The “he” here can be Keller, Gupta or… take your pick from the recent scandals.

Usha Subramanian is a Mumbai-based academician
The views expressed by the author are personal