A zero short of a billion

Sometimes, finishing second is worse than finishing last. I was introduced to this sad truth when I was an undergraduate at IIT-Kanpur and I was reminded once again of that truth when I read the NY Times piece on Rajat Gupta.

The fourth year in an IIT is particularly hard on second besters, for it is clear by then that you can no longer come first and the people at the very top are permanently out of reach. The students at the very top are different. They are more gifted, harder working, more strategic with their time or simply luckier. When a certain kind of second bester, realizes that he cannot be Hillary or Gagarin, he unravels. He starts smoking and drinking — though usually not so much that the secure scholarship or job is threatened- and ever so often falls in with a much more dangerous crowd; the losers who never had anything to prove, or worse, townies who are not part of the IIT treadmill at all.

Fortunately, graduation is only a few months away and the second bester can forget his (and I say ‘his’ because most of us IIT-ans are men) recent ignominy and try to run the good race once again. Let us not forget that an IIT education is optimized for one and only one thing: the ability to run races. We don’t build great machines or discover new worlds. Our engineering skills are quickly diverted after graduation when we are drafted to serve white collar and governmental masters.

Run, run, run. Every race has a finish line, right? As IITians who believe in merit, a race is an unambiguous marker of merit: when it is over, you are under no illusion as to who came first. If you are the racing kind, life itself is the greatest race of all. Except that you don’t get a second chance. So what does a second-bester do, when he has retired at the top of his chosen profession and finds himself a rather poor second best to Bill Clinton and Bill Gates?

Rajat Gupta, perhaps the most successful managerial product in IIT history, must have asked himself that question several times. Or even if he didn’t speak it aloud, his subconscious must have whispered that truth to his ear while he lay awake at night.

In this Times article and elsewhere, much has been made of the South Asian clique around Rajaratnam and how the aristocratic Gupta fell for the trap laid by the dark Sri Lankan. Yes, I know it shouldn’t be said out loud, but everyone from our part of the world and quite a few elsewhere are thinking it — how did that fair, aquiline statesman get into bed with a pug nosed Dravidian? That’s a story for another occasion though; here we are peering under a different carpet, one that is woven out of the purest silk. IIT’s are the greatest meritocracy that India has generated after all.

I believe we need to look deeper into the IIT origins of Rajat Gupta’s downfall; after all, we alumni are all aware of what our classmates were willing to do to get that A or that prized recommendation letter. Does it surprise any insider that Rajat ended the way he did?

A few years ago, when he was one of the brightest stars in our firmament, we feted him. Now we revile him. I find the former more troubling than the latter. It is a sad situation when institutes entrusted with the task of building a nation can only excel in adding several zeros to their Wall Street masters. That we still fall a zero short is the least of our troubles.

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