Chanda Kochhar, like Icarus, has scorched her wings
It’s yet another lesson on the pitfalls of public life, forever under the spotlight of judgmental scrutiny. It seems harsh to measure a three-decade career by a relatively minor lapse, but that is the price for all the wealth, stature and accolades it comes with, when the going is goodUpdated: Jun 23, 2018 16:45 IST
In June last year, I happened to walk into a café in south Delhi to spot Rajat Gupta, former Mckinsey chief who had been released after serving a prison sentence for abetting insider trading, seated alone at a corner table. He had the face of a broken man; his eyes darting around the room almost fearing that people would recognise him. It wasn’t the fear of a celebrity trying to hide from prying eyes, but that of a man ashamed by his fall from grace, his dubious legacy. Gupta may have been guilty of the crime he was charged with, yet one couldn’t help feel a bit sorry for him. About how a single moment of weakness had tarnished his storied career forever. Everyone would always remember him as the man who went to jail. Such is the predicament of people in public life. With great highs, there always lurks the fear of the deepest lows.
ICICI bank chief Chanda Kochhar will not go to prison like Gupta did, though she has been sent off on leave by a vacillating board, pending investigation by an independent panel. Chances are high that she won’t return. If the Srikrishna panel fails to clear her name, her career will end on the same sour note as Gupta’s — under the shadow of having been unscrupulous and dishonest. If it does, Kochhar will be in good company; several PSU bank chiefs are currently being investigated for their roles in dubious loan sanctions. In her case, though, there is a personal angle, with the involvement of her husband in the alleged misdemeanour. Why do people, at the peak of their careers, make such disastrous mistakes? In the case of PSU bank officials, it is probably naked greed. After all, they are paid peanuts. But people like Gupta and Kochhar, who have all the wealth one could reasonably aspire for? Perhaps it is the gratification of having obliged a person close to you, or plain hubris that you can get away with anything from that position of power. Whatever it is, it has to be put down to a momentary lapse of reason, given the enormity of the likely consequences.
While the report from the panel is not out yet, the market has already given its verdict. The day news of an interim COO being appointed became known, the ICICI stock jumped 4%, in a sigh of relief. If her final departure is announced, the stock will probably rally even more. After 34 years of service, this is what it has come down to — investors eagerly awaiting her dismissal. The painstaking years spent building the institution, the lofty Padma Bhushan, the frequent appearances in the world’s most powerful women lists, all forgotten, in a flash. All her ‘close’ friends, there to applaud every milestone, gone curiously missing. The market is ruthless, the world a cruel place.
This is unfortunate in other ways as well. Just a few years ago, Indian corporate banking, traditionally a man’s playfield, was ruled by three women. Now, Arundhati Bhattacharya is gone from the State Bank of India, the Reserve Bank of India wants to cut short Shikha Sharma’s tenure at ICICI bank and Kochhar are embroiled in this controversy. At a time when there is such a need for women business leaders to break through the glass ceiling, this is a setback. These bank chiefs stoked millions of career dreams, which now lie dented. One can almost hear the misogynist banter at south Mumbai parties.
Kochhar’s end may be like the mythical Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and scorched his wings. It’s yet another lesson on the pitfalls of public life, forever under the spotlight of judgmental scrutiny. It seems harsh to measure a three-decade career by a relatively minor lapse, but that is the price for all the wealth, stature and accolades it comes with, when the going is good. Finally, it is how you play your last innings that matters. As Harvey Dent says in the Batman movie – You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.
Udayan Mukherjee is consulting editor, CNBC TV18
The views expressed are personal