India's Management Guru Tilts at `Internet Hooliganism'
In a little more than 15 years, the Indian education guru Arindam Chaudhuri, 41, has channeled a spectacular ambition and talent for self-promotion into the construction of a massive empire, rooted in management education. It has expanded year by year into corporate workshops, film production, magazines and journals, joint ventures and tie-ups, and philanthropic projects.
Chaudhuri sees himself, not without basis, as the face of an ambitious new India, as someone not bound by old pieties and class hierarchies, jostling and provoking the old order and bringing in revolution with every move. His own website, which describes him as an economist, "management guru," author, speaker and "transformational leader," also has his motto prominently posted on the home page. Part Zig Ziglar, part Paulo Coelho, it goes, "if you think you can, you are right." It's the old "dare to dream," reworked into something more gratifying and more slippery.
It should follow that anybody interested in a business start-up in the turbulent new world of capitalist India would study Chaudhuri's moves closely -- and where possible emulate them. Chaudhuri himself seems to invite this, saying that he thinks of himself as a management guru who stands out for his practical experience of entrepreneurship in diverse realms. ("Arindam considers himself an Entrepreneur and its in his various entrepreneurial endeavors that he first practices what he speaks.")
But that's where it gets complicated. Because one of India's most charismatic businessmen is also one of its most belligerent and most litigious. Not only does he want to tell his own story, he would also like others to stop trying to trip him up.
Last week, more than 60 Web URLs containing material critical of Chaudhuri and his flagship venture, the Indian Institute of Planning and Management (IIPM), were blocked by the Indian government, acting on an order passed by a lower court in the city of Gwalior, which itself was hearing a case filed by Chaudhuri's legal department. Among the Web pages that were blocked were several posts by independent bloggers (many writers on India's thriving blogosphere have management degrees and strong opinions about IIPM), but also reports on the sites of major newspapers.
Although the reasons behind the directive weren't clearly stated, the Center for Internet and Society speculated that the order seemed to be "an interim injunction in a defamation suit." It wasn't the first time Chaudhuri has taken recourse to the courts to stifle press reports that are critical of him or his management school -- or to counter what he thinks of as "the elite mafia" who want to derail his projects. In 2011, after a long profile of him by the writer Sidddhartha Deb was published in the Indian magazine The Caravan, Chaudhuri brought a 500 million rupees (approximately $10 million) lawsuit against Deb, The Caravan, Deb's publisher Penguin India, and Google India, who stood accused of “publishing, distributing, giving coverage, circulating, blogging the defamatory, libelous and slanderous articles.”
Although the case is yet to be decided, Chaudhuri succeeded in having a stay order passed that directed the magazine to take the piece down from its website (it can be read here) and disallowed Deb from publishing the chapter on Chaudhuri in his forthcoming book "The Beautiful and the Damned" (it appears in the U.S. edition under the heading "The Gatsby of New Delhi"). The essay offers fascinating insight not only into the mind and methods of Chaudhuri, but into an entire culture of aspiration, striving and resentment in a rapidly changing but highly stratified society that shuts many young people off from its highest reaches. While it contains many quotes that are critical of its subject -- one man is quoted as saying of Chaudhuri, "The man is a fraud, but a very successful one," and the entire edifice of the IIPM built by Chaudhuri is compared to a pyramid scheme -- it is by no means hostile to him. If anything, the reader comes away with the perception that he has been taken into the world of a slightly warped genius who hasn't just cornered a market but grasped a zeitgeist.
So why would Chaudhuri go to such extremes to try and gag opinions about him, or assessments of his school? As someone who necessarily preaches transparency in business but also calls for it in politics through his columns (unsurprisingly, he claims he has "a weekly column in more newspapers than any other Indian writer"), he knew he risked ridicule and wrath by playing the bully. (Indeed, he caused a storm on Twitter.) And as a child of India's first Internet generation, he isn't so naive as to be unaware of the Streisand Effect: the phenomenon, usually associated with the Internet, whereby the attempt to censor or block a piece of information actually leads to its public circulation well in excess of prior levels.
The answer must be that Chaudhuri has plenty to lose in a game of high stakes and huge revenues if he doesn't (IIPM's turnover isn't known, but one survey ranked it the biggest spender of all the brands advertising in the print media in 2008). And that in trying to pull the rug out from beneath the feet of his critics by any means possible, he demonstrates to his own constituency -- including hundreds of students who've each invested more than $10,000 in an IIPM certificate -- that he's singlehandedly fighting off a cabal consisting of people linked to India's elite, state-funded management schools, the IIMs, and standing up against what he calls, in a piece from 2011, "internet hooliganism":
Internet hooliganism, as I describe it, is the most contemptible character of the modern technology era, where it doesn't matter how respectable you are or what your organisation is, or how you sincerely worked throughout the past many decades – irrespective of all that, you will be attacked anonymously with false statements that will make you cringe for a lifetime and with almost no hope for any recourse. The question is, why is all this not controllable? When a person talks negatively and falsely about you in public, the law provides for such a person to be immediately pulled up by both law enforcement and judicial authorities. Then why cannot the same rules be applied over the Internet...? First, as I mentioned earlier, is the wicked anonymity that the web provides to Internet posters, which gives them protection from being identified and prosecuted. Second is the hand-in-hand conspiratorial connivance of Internet companies like search engines, social networking sites, blog site hosts and even ISPs (intermediaries, in summary) that refuse to delete or block out the execrable comments and links and also refuse to confirm the identities of the anon-posters. Google, Wikipedia, Twitter... all of them fall within the same indecent category of companies.
On the day that news broke of the clampdown on the Web URLs, Chaudhuri appeared on more than one news channel, where he deployed defensive measures against a host of hostile examiners. He claimed that the nub of the matter wasn't free speech but defamation, that there was a conspiracy against him being waged by elite management schools, and that the action against the offending web links had been initiated by "a channel partner."
And he wielded the stick, shouting, "If you harm my business, I'll sue you." Even so, Chaudhuri was goaded into an embarrassing display of taunts, threats and expletives on the news channel CNN-IBN by two journalists, Shivam Vij and Maheshwar Peri. The latter had some years ago overseen the publication of a damning piece on the website Careers360 called "IIPM: Best Only In Claims" and also previously won a court case against Chaudhuri.
A slightly more disengaged, but very necessary, gloss on the case was supplied by Sandipan Deb in the newspaper Mint. Deb argued that regardless of Chaudhuri's motives or what his legal department was capable of, the government directive against the URLs should never have been passed in the first place:
Most of what people have been posting on blogs and social media is about IIPM: allegations that it misrepresents facts, and so on. But that is missing the woods for the trees. IIPM is hardly the big issue here. The issue here is that a court issued such an order. The fact that the court ordered the blocking of a notice issued by the UGC, the government authority which is supposed to monitor the quality of our higher education systems, is actually more serious than the obvious freedom of expression issue. If this wasn’t frightening, it would have been actually funny. The current government’s zeal to curb freedom on the Internet turns and bites it right back. Some of the links blocked are simply news reports that make no comment—libelous or otherwise—on IIPM. Some other links, of course, express very strong opinions about the business school; a few of them appear to be dedicated purely to attacking it. But the order doesn’t seem to have taken the content of the links into account and applies a broad brushstroke that indicates a casual attitude towards something at the very core of a democratic system.
This is true. Many recent outrages against the individual's democratic right to speech and to criticize have taken the form of censorship of material on the Internet -- including of material posted on Facebook profile pages. L'affaire Arindam isn't just about a powerful corporate entity on the rampage, but about the complicity of existing laws in India with the suppression of free speech. These battles, as much as Chaudhuri's own life story and successes in business, are symbolic of a great churning in modern India.
Meanwhile, Chaudhuri continues to chase down his critics -- this time on Twitter.
(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter @Hashestweets. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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