Rajat Gupta and Dharun Ravi: Two Trials, One Lesson

One is the big fish. The other is just small fry.

One represented the beginning of the American Dream story. The other symbolised its glittering climax.

But both the Rajat Gupta and Dharun Ravi stories have crash-landed in the same place. Dharun Ravi has gone to prison even though his sentence was drastically reduced. Rajat Gupta looks set to follow him there.

The cases are very different but ironically both the college freshman and the corporate hotshot followed the same route to their downfall.

Ravi was offered a plea bargain that would have allowed him to avoid jail time. He spurned it, convinced he could prove his innocence in court.

Gupta initially faced a simple administrative punishment from the SEC. But he instead filed a case against the SEC accusing them of singling him out. The SEC dropped its case leading Gupta to think he had won. But within a few months, it went after him, all guns blazing, and filed criminal charges. Ravi Batra, a New York lawyer, told the media "If you have done wrong, do not play the matador and wave a red flag against the bull in the arena."

Especially when the matador is the U.S. government.

Gupta's supporters will say he took on the government because he was convinced of his own innocence. As was Ravi.

But was it a conviction born out of a sense of his own innocence or a hubris born out of wealth and privilege? When you are an A-lister on the board of some of the biggest names in corporate and non-profit America, do you start believing in the myth of your invulnerability, the magic of your Rolodex, and the wizardry of the best lawyers that money can buy?

Now it's tempting to read the wrong cautionary tale into the downfall of someone like Rajat Gupta. "Indian American communities have started complaining for a long time about severe form uncontrolled racism within American criminal justice system where law enforcement authorities, prosecutors, judges, and even criminal defense attorneys work together to pin down successful Indian American immigrants," writes Priya Mathur in an op-ed in India Daily.

Ravi and Gupta were indeed targeted, but not for being Indian American. They were both indicted in showpiece trials that were about issues larger than either of them and, in some sense, they became unlucky scapegoats as Michael Wolff suggests in The Guardian.

We can't seem to prosecute financial institutions or their executives, but individual traders are good gets; we seem absolutely incapable of addressing daily bulling in any systemic way, but here's someone possibly bullied into suicide...The crimes may be vague, but the motivations to prosecute them are, in their way, worthy. Society is righteously expressing itself. The point is being made. In each instance, prosecutors have certainly put themselves on the savvy side of general outrage.

Where Ravi and Gupta and their lawyers gravely misjudged was in being tone deaf to that sense of "general outrage." As a community, Indian Americans are used to being a model minority, complacent about winning, whether it's spelling bees, or science talent searches or the governorship of South Carolina.

Gupta and Ravi complains Sujeet Rajan in Global India Newswire, are "turning up an ugly side of the community, which may tarnish the till-now impeccable credentials of a group known for being rich, highly educated and family-oriented." NRICommunity.com consoles Indian Americans saying just as they have Rajat Gupta and Dharun Ravi, they also have Snigdha Nandipati, the spelling bee champion.

These are the two faces of Indian Americans, one good and one bad.

But Dharun Ravi and Rajat Gupta, before their explosive trials, would have been firmly in the "good face" category. The flip side of the success story is Indians, by dint of their success, have long considered themselves above the garden variety immigrant. That is why they have thought they could get away with almost anything because people who own $12.4 million houses just do. They consider it a perk of success in America. Somewhere along the line, as it went up the ladder, a community that had a reputation for being meek and law-abiding, started thinking of itself as above the same law.

So, as Rajan recounts, the Sabhnanis, who made millions making perfumes thought they could get away with treating their maids like indentured slaves. A former Indian consul was judged guilty of holding back pay to her maid. An Indian American couple were charged this year with raking in over $460 million through kickbacks in a New York City corruption scam where they were supposed to be modernizing the payroll system.

It's wrong to think Indians are unwittingly importing Third World customs, whether it's cronyism or treating servants like dirt or homophobia, to the First World and then being tripped up by it. There is nothing particularly Indian about what's happening here. The arrogance of wealth is universal.

Whether Ravi and Gupta are truly guilty or not is for lawyers to debate. Gupta's lawyer has already said this is just round one. But for now they have been found guilty by a jury of their peers, in trials they brought upon themselves.

Irrespective of how their story ultimately pans out, the Indian-American self-image of itself as a minority group with "impeccable credentials," the "fairest of them all" has been proved a fantasy. That was just a self-serving mirror that finally shattered in two different American courtrooms this year.

A version of this blogpost originally appeared on Firstpost.com.