On page 364 of The Billionaire’s Apprentice, almost at the end of the book, Aman Kumar asks his father Anil, “Why?” Why, with everything he had going for him, did he have to resort to selling corporate secrets? The question permeates Anita Raghavan’s book about the Galleon hedge fund scandal and the fall from grace of one of the most beloved luminaries of the Indian American community in the United States, ex-McKinsey Managing Director Rajat Gupta. It is a question that has been asked ever since by a shocked community that has prided itself on achievement, assimilation, and its model minority status.
The Billionaire’s Apprentice-The Rise of the Indian-American Elite and the Fall of the Galleon Hedge Fund is a tour de force by award-winning financial journalist Anita Raghavan about the insider trading scandal that brought down some of the most influential figures in the South Asian diaspora. The book has a fly-on-the-wall quality about it, a testament to the two years of shoe-leather reporting done by Raghavan, who even took the trouble of looking at security footage of the court where the trials were held to get a sense of what the defendants were wearing.
Anil Kumar, of course, was a senior partner and director at management consultancy McKinsey & Company, and according to Wikipedia, the “government’s first cooperator and most important witness” in the securities fraud trials against Gupta and Raj Rajaratnam, the billionaire founder of the Galleon Group family of hedge funds. Kumar’s capitulation to regulators provided them with much of the evidence they needed to make the charges of insider trading stick against these two powerful and influential Wall Street figures.
Despite the significance of his actions, it is not his story that Raghavan focuses on, but that of Gupta, a man once universally respected for his principles and his philanthropy. Like the painstaking work of the SEC regulators building their insider trading case, Raghavan meticulously lays out the events leading to Gupta’s arrest, beginning with the story of his father Ashwini, who played a small yet significant role in the Indian freedom movement. She leads us through Rajat Gupta’s insecure childhood, filled with poverty and principles, and his steady, merit-driven rise through the ranks of McKinsey to the ultimate post of Managing Director. In parallel, we see two other narratives-the unchecked growth of the Galleon Fund and the rise to prominence of its founder Rajaratnam, and the work of Indian American Sanjay Wadhwa, an employee of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), in bringing the insider trading ring to justice.
I ask Raghavan why she chose to make Rajat Gupta the protagonist of a book about the rise (and fall) of the Indian American elite. “Any of us could be Rajat Gupta,” she says. “When you have remarkable human beings who suddenly abandon the principles on which they achieve their success, it makes for a compelling read.” Raj Rajaratnam who by all accounts was a colorful character, gets less attention because, as Raghavan puts it, “I think it is quite boring to write about a self-described rogue who indulges in roguish behavior… Raj was what you would expect him to be. There was no complexity.” She adds, “The fascinating thing about Rajaratnam is that he would normally not have been an appealing playmate to a person like Anil Kumar and Rajat Gupta, who really prided themselves on their intellect, yet he ended up being their closest confidant.”
So what was the allure of a man like Rajaratnam to the capable and successful Gupta that led him to break the law? In the book, author Vijay Prashad posits “…if a person goes through life believing struggle is irrelevant, you don’t have to work for anything, why not take more than you are offered?” His explanation for the ethical ambivalence of the generation that arrived in the United States from India is that the lack of struggle on their part caused them to be morally weak.
I propose to Raghavan that it may have been the culture of corruption in their home country that made it easier for Gupta and Kumar to be complicit with Rajaratnam. She agrees but adds, “The irony is that Rajat portrayed himself as an assimilated American. He would sometimes come to meetings wearing an American flag. But towards the end of his career he was doing business the way it is done back home. And yet, men like Rajat left India and moved to America because it offered a more straightforward experience for those wanting to do well.” Raghavan’s father, who immigrated to the United States in the 1950s, did not wish to return to India because career advancement would have meant scratching someone’s back, some patronage. It is obvious that Gupta’s fall affects Raghavan at an almost personal level. “How could a man like Rajat espouse American values and then decry them?” Gupta’s descent into Rajaratnam’s world is particularly galling to her given his father’s high-principled contributions to the Indian freedom movement. “Rajat debased his father’s legacy. It felt very personal to me. He may not have come from wealth but he came from a family that valued non-material things. You can understand the kid who came from a poor background getting into something like this, but Rajat should never have ended up where he did.”
Raghavan has another interesting insight into Gupta’s aberrant behavior. She notes that his life was exemplary till he arrived in New York. “I remember walking down Broadway singing under my breath, ‘if I can make it here, I can make it anywhere,’” she remembers with a laugh, and suggests that the shock of moving to New York may have left Gupta vulnerable to the lure of themega wealth of Wall Street. “When Rajat started at McKinsey, it was the management consultants who were being paid the most. Fast forward a couple of decades and it’s the partners at Goldman Sachs who are earning outrageous amounts.” When money becomes a proxy for power, and 100 million dollars is only enough to get your foot in the door to the top echelons of influence, Gupta’s fall becomes easier to understand. An anecdote dug up by Raghavan gives some credence to this theory. “Rajat’s calendar would note every single time he flew first class or on a private jet.”
But if one were to indict the culture of greed on Wall Street for Gupta’s transformation from principled visionary to tawdry information trader, it must be noted that there have been many titans of high finance who have managed to exploit the loopholes in the law but stay short of breaking it. “Exactly!” says Raghavan. “I’ve heard the same indictment of Wall Street from other South Asians, but the charges of fraud against Rajat are in the order of traffic violations. I suspect that sophisticated players like Lloyd Blankfein (CEO and Chairman of Goldman Sachs) don’t engage in traffic violations.”
Despite Raghavan’s conviction about Gupta’s guilt and her disapproval of his actions, The Billionaire’s Apprentice maintains a remarkably even-handed tone. Gupta, who is currently free on appeal, has always maintained his innocence, and the book faithfully reports on the circumstantial evidence that led to his downfall. “Insider trading cases are often built on circumstantial evidence” says Raghavan, who has been castigated by some South Asians for her reporting of the case, “and in Rajat’s case the evidence is really compelling.”
The book has received mixed reviews in the Indian American community. At a talk to the Asian Society in New York, listeners angrily chastised her for presenting a flawed snapshot of the diaspora, citing Gupta’s presumed innocence and the many contributions Indian Americans have made to the United States. “I have also presented the incredible effort put in by other Indian Americans like Wadhwa and Preet Bharara (U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York),” Raghavan defends her work.
At her talk at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, however, many of the Indian Americans in the audience nodded along with her revelations. “They were appalled by [Gupta and Rajaratnam]. Their actions had sullied the dreams of these immigrants.”
The Billionaire’s Apprentice is a fascinating read, albeit one with a plethora of characters that can make the book challenging for readers unfamiliar with the case. “I had to stay true to the story,” says Raghavan, who pared nearly a 100 pages from the now-500 page tome. But the book rewards the patient reader with an unprecedented insider’s look at the big South Asian players on Wall Street. Readers concerned about having to wade through the intricacies of high finance will be reassured to find it a thrilling page-turner and, ultimately, a deeply human story of triumph, greed, and tragedy.
Vidya Pradhan is a freelance writer who hosts the weekly radio show Safari Kids Quiz Show on KZDG 1550 AM. She also runs the community blog Water, No Ice and was the editor of India Currents from June 2009 to February 2012.