The sentencing of Sri Lankan born hedge fund billionaire, Raj Rajaratnam to a lengthy jail term on charges of insider trading is big news in the financial world. The news has also proved to be of special interest to South Asian Americans who are used to seeing the conspicuous success of members of their community but not so much their downfall. I for one, cringed when I read the widely cited interview of Rajaratnam by Suketu Mehta in Newsweek and its sister web site The Daily Beast. The reason for my discomfort was not so much that I belong to the same community as most of the culprits of this gang. I once pointed out here that I rarely ever personalize the success or failure of people who share my ethnicity. What I found jarring in Mehta's otherwise very readable interview was the emphasis on the desi angle to Rajaratnam's crimes and subsequent arrest and conviction.
Rajaratnam is an immigrant, not American-born. He had grown up, as he tells it, in fear: of the Sinhalese majority in his homeland; of the skinheads in Britain where he’d studied; and of the established elites of Wall Street where he did business. At just about every stage of his life, there were people out to get him. “I saw myself as an underdog.”...
...Part of Rajaratnam’s narrative is that of a man from a smaller South Asian country seduced and betrayed by people from the Big Brother country. Kumar had introduced him to Rajat Gupta. The two of them wanted to start an Indian School of Business in Hyderabad. “I gave them [the school] a million dollars. I later found out they never contributed any of their money, and are listed as the school’s founders. And I’m not even a fucking Indian.”
The betrayal by the Indian associates hurts the most—he barely mentions the white government witnesses. He regrets doing a joint venture with the Indians.
The South Asian connection makes less sinister some of the allegations in the trial. For example, the prosecution noted that Rajaratnam would visit Goel’s house in Silicon Valley, presumably to talk about Intel. But the real explanation is more human. “His wife makes really good chaat[a savory snack]!” Rajaratnam and Goel were very good friends, so his betrayal hurts him personally.
“There are two types of plea bargains. One is, you cooperate with the government. You finger 10 other people. The other is a plea bargain without cooperation.” The white defendants all pleaded without cooperating; they did not wear a wire. “The South Asians all did the plea bargain with fingering,” he notes sourly. “The Americans stood their ground. Every bloody Indian cooperated—Goel, Khan, Kumar.” He puts it down to “the insecurity of being an immigrant, lawyers bullying them into that position.”
Rajaratnam has very deep pockets, lived in a Penthouse in Manhattan and stole like many other high rollers of Wall Street. That his network consisted mostly of Indians is not terribly germaine to the legal troubles he is in. After all, the prosecutor who went after him is also of Indian origin and one of the two FBI agents who arrested him is Asian. Do people feel more comfortable in committing crimes when they are among "friends" or cohorts who "understand" them? (Think of the Italian/Jewish/Irish Mafias of the mid 20th century) Perhaps. But it still makes them criminals. The fact that Rajaratnam and his partners are relatively new immigrants is relevant only if they were operating under the misguided notion that a) they would not be caught and b) that if caught, they could buy their way out as they may well have in the countries of their birth. Both Preet Bharara, the prosecutor and Rajaratnam himself hint that indeed the underlying mentality may have been a bit like that, even when it was clear that things don't quite work that way in the US for the most part and the American law can not accommodate a culprit's cultural background.
The whole story speaks to the South Asian–American community: its pursuit of success and money at any cost; the differences between immigrants and the first generation; and the immigrants’ incomplete understanding of the rigor of the law in the U.S.
“There are rules and there are laws, and they apply to everyone, no matter who you are or how much money you have,” says [Preet] Bharara. This is what was not easily understood by the South Asians named in the conspiracy. There are laws and rules in India and Sri Lanka, too, but they can be tested, ignored by those who have money or friends"...
As late as two weeks before the sentencing, Rajaratnam was still being asked by the government to turn on Gupta. But he wouldn’t wear a wire, he says, so he could sleep at night. “Anil Kumar’s son worked at Galleon one summer. I used to vacation with Rajiv Goel’s family. Their families knew my family. You don’t think this is going to haunt these guys? They wanted me to plea-bargain. They want to get Rajat. I am not going to do what people did to me. Rajat has four daughters.”
The Rajaratnam case can be seen as a metaphor of the difference between immigrants from South Asia, who have a more elastic view of rules and a more keenly developed art of networking, and their children, the first generation, schooled to play by American rules. Preet Bharara came to the U.S. when he was an infant. Yet for all his complaints about unfairness, Rajaratnam, surprisingly, still believes in American justice. “In Sri Lanka I would have given the judge 50,000 rupees and he’d be sitting having dinner at my house. Here, I got my shot. The American justice system is by and large fair.”
In your case too?” I ask. “I said by and large.”