A leadership seminar by Arindam Chaudhuri

06 December 2018
Chaudhuri and his wife, Rajita, a former student of his at IIPM who now teaches at the school.
courtesy arindamchaudhuri.com

This is an extract from Siddhartha Deb’s February 2011 cover story, “Sweet Smell of Success: How Arindam Chaudhuri made a fortune off the aspirations—and insecurities—of India’s middle classes.” The article had previously been removed pursuant to an injunction granted by a civil court in Silchar, in 2011, as part of IIPM’s Rs 500-million lawsuit against The Caravan. In February this year, a single judge of the Delhi High Court vacated the injunction. The IIPM appealed this decision, and the injunction was restored while the appeal was being heard. In an order passed on 27 November, a division bench of the Delhi High Court dismissed the appeal, upholding the single judge’s order. In keeping with this latest decision, The Caravan has republished the story online. Subscribe now to the read the story in full, and read more about IIPM’s case against The Caravan here.

One evening in September, I went to the Grand Ballroom auditorium of the Park Royal Hotel to hear Arindam speak. I had heard him address a crowd before, but that had been a familiar audience, made up of graduating IIPM students herded into a hotel auditorium near the Satbari campus. The students seemed awestruck but restless, their attention wandering whenever the talk veered away from the question of their future to trickle-down theory; no doubt they were more concerned with trickle-up. Arindam hectored them a little, and he had been worried enough about this to send me a text message a few hours later, asking me to “discount some of the harsh words i said to students.”

The event at the Grand Ballroom was different. It was the final performance of a daylong “leadership” seminar for which people had paid 4,000 rupees, the previous speakers having included Arindam’s wife and several IIPM professors. Over 100 people, quite a few women among them, sat under the chandeliers as a laptop was set up on stage. They looked like aspirational rather than polished corporate types, the men with red sacred threads around their wrists, the women in saris and salwarkameezes, a gathering of middle-class, middle-rung, white-collar individuals whose interest in leadership skills had a dutiful air. After a number of children—it was unclear to whom they belonged— clustered around Arindam to get copies of the all-time best-seller Count Your Chickens Before They Hatch signed, Arindam took the stage. He wore a shiny black corduroy suit, the jacket displaying embroidery on the shoulders, and loafers that appeared to be made of snake skin.

Arindam wasn’t a natural speaker. In prolonged one-toone conversations, he had the tendency to look away, not meeting the listener’s gaze. This was less of a problem in a public gathering, but he also had a high-pitched voice and a tendency to fumble his lines. He started by asking people what leadership meant to them. As his listeners spewed out answers, using phrases (“dream believer,” “reach the objective,” “making decisions,” “simplifying things”) that seemed to have been lifted from some ur-text of self-help and management, they seemed both eager and slightly combative, as if not entirely convinced of his ability to teach them about leadership. “Here’s the great Arindam Chaudhuri,” a man next to me muttered, using great in the Indian way to mean someone fraudulent. Arindam seemed aware of the hostility: his responses were hesitant, and his English was uncertain and pronouncedly Delhi middle-class in its inflection.

As the session went on, however, it became evident that these qualities weren’t drawbacks, not among the people he was addressing. The mannerisms gave Arindam an everyday appeal, and it was the juxtaposition of this homeliness with his wealth, success and glamour that created a hold over the leadership aspirants in the audience. By themselves, the Bentley Continental, the ponytail and the designer glasses, or the familiar way Arindam had of dropping names like Harvard, McKinsey and Lee Iacocca would have made him too remote. But the glamour was irresistible when combined with his middlebrow manner. He was one of the audience, even if he represented the final stage in the evolution of the petit bourgeoisie.

Arindam was well aware of this. If he wasn’t a natural speaker, he nevertheless had a performer’s ability to gather strength the longer he stayed on stage. Thirty minutes into the leadership session, as I began to be drawn into his patter, I realised that Arindam was telling the Indian middle class a story about itself, offering his audience an answer to the question of who they were. “I am trying to be a mirror,” he said, a comment remarkably attuned to the way he represented a larger-than-life version of the people he addressed.

His listeners had come to the session with a rough sense of who they were supposed to be. They received instruction about this from the culture at large, especially the proliferating media outlets that obsessed about them as members of “India Shining.” The Western media characterised them in a similar manner. Arindam’s audience knew that as middleclass, well-to-do Indians, they were supposed to be modern and managerial. They were a people devoted to efficiency, given to the making of money and the enjoyment of consumer goods while retaining a touch of traditional spice, which meant, for instance, that they used the internet to arrange marriages along caste and class lines.

Still, they needed further affirmation of their role, and this is what Arindam provided, mixing that cocktail of spurious tradition and manufactured modernity, while adding his signature flavor to the combination. He told his listeners stories about traveling to America, Europe and Japan—the ultramodern places that middle-class India had been emulating and suddenly found within its reach. Yet few people in the audience had been to these countries, and if they did go, they would not encounter them with any degree of intimacy. The very places they were most drawn to—the business centres, the shopping plazas, the franchise restaurants—would remain slightly unreal in spite of the photographs taken, the souvenirs bought, the money spent.

In the Grand Ballroom, though, these places were conjured anecdotally and made to resemble the India the audience knew, or thought they knew. So there were jokes about national stereotypes, comments about the different strengths and weaknesses of the Americans, the Japanese, the French and the Indians. There were no individuals in these stories, only nameless businessmen met by Arindam in anonymous boardrooms, and the world itself seemed no more than a string of Grand Ballrooms, each dominated by a different ethnic group of capitalists.

After Arindam had given the audience this touch of the foreign, he returned to more familiar territory. He made fun of regional Indian identities, something done rather easily among a largely Hindi-speaking Delhi crowd that tends to see itself as national. He pandered to their middleclass prejudices, attacking the government as inefficient and corrupt, and then satisfied their nationalism by speaking of the Indian Army as the most efficient and disciplined wing of the state.

As Arindam became more comfortable, he slipped into Hindi, segueing into the story of the Mahabharata. This was his way of approaching the “Theory i Management” concept of leadership. Like many contemporary Hindus who have tried to cut from their sprawling beliefs the hard lines of a modern faith, Arindam wasn’t interested in the complex ethical questions or sophisticated narrative strategies of the Mahabharata. Instead, his focus was on the Bhagavad Gita.

The Gita emerged as a foundational religious text only in modern times, when Hindu revivalists reeling from colonialism sought something more definitive than the amorphous set of practices and ideas that had characterised Vedic religion until then. Then in the early 1990s, the Gita again received new life, when the Indian elites simultaneously embraced free-market economics and a hardened Hindu chauvinism. They discovered in the Gita an old, civilisational argument for maintaining the contemporary hierarchies of caste, wealth and power, while in the story of Arjuna throwing aside his moral dilemmas and entering wholeheartedly into the slaughter of the battlefield, they read an endorsement of a militant, aggressive Hinduism that did not shrink from violence, especially against minorities and the poor. Given this appeal of the Gita among the Indian middle and upper classes, Arindam’s use of it was a canny choice. He was extending into the realm of management theory a story that his audience would be both familiar with and respectful toward, so that to challenge Arindam’s ideas would be tantamount to questioning a sacred text.

Arindam began the elaboration of his Indian theories, naturally enough, by pulling a red Gita out of a pocket. A Planman photographer ran forward to capture the moment and, for the first time in the session, the audience began scribbling notes. Arindam turned to the laptop as if he were going to boot Krishna into existence, but the laptop refused to comply. As one, two, three, and then four people hurried to help, Arindam gave up, turned away from the computer, and faced the audience.

He began a performance that was part television soap and part stand-up comedy, hamming the roles of housewives, husbands returned from work, fathers and babies, management trainees and their bosses. The audience burst into laughter as each little cameo played out. The laptop was finally made to work, and on the screen appeared a matrix of character types Arindam had extracted from the Hindu scriptures. There was the tamas or pleasure-loving type, who could be led only by domination; the rajas, ambitious but greedy, who needed a combination of encouragement and control; and the sattva, who was brilliant and talented and needed to be left alone. “Leadership is about changing your colors like a chameleon to suit the situation,” Arindam said, citing Krishna, the androgynous, slippery god, as the role model for the ideal CEO. Laborers and blue-collar workers were tamasic, young management trainees rajasic, and highly skilled professionals like research scientists were sattvic. He had reinvented the caste system in two hours.

Arindam finished to all-round applause, and as he came down the stage, he was mobbed by his listeners. I went outside to the passageway, where tamasic workers in overalls were installing gates decorated with marigold garlands for a wedding reception that would take place later in the evening. I sat down beside a disheveled-looking man in a suit who was holding a plastic shopping bag that said “More Word Power.”

He had attended the entire day’s session, and when I asked him what he thought, he replied that it had been interesting. He had enjoyed some of the earlier speakers, especially A Sandip, the editor-in-chief of all of Planman’s magazines.

“And what did you think of Arindam Chaudhuri’s talk?” I asked. “Rubbish. It made no sense at all,” he said. He fell silent, avoiding my gaze, and when he looked at me again, it was with embarrassment. “You are a friend? You work for the company?” He cheered up as soon as he found out that I was writing about Arindam. “The man is a fraud,” he said, “but a very successful one.” He was a small publisher who churned out language education books. He would be publishing a management book during the World Book Fair in Delhi in February, a work written by a Canadian living in Beijing.

“It is mostly China-focused. You are aware that there is great interest in China these days? So I wanted to have an event like this for the Canadian during the book fair, and I decided to come and see this. You are writing about ArindamChaudhuri?” He handed me his business card, leaned toward me, chuckled and said, “You must find out how he makes his money.”

I knew by now how Arindam made his money, or much of it—through IIPM’s tuition and (as in his movie business) by keeping costs low. But what was mysterious was the air of disrepute that clung to him; his wealth, oddly, had not bought him a free pass. People like this publisher seemed to see in Arindam a more successful version of themselves: far enough away to be envied, yet close enough to be resented.

This is an extract from Siddhartha Deb’s February 2011 cover story, “Sweet Smell of Success: How Arindam Chaudhuri made a fortune off the aspirations—and insecurities—of India’s middle classes.” Subscribe now to the read the story in full, and read more about IIPM’s case against The Caravan here.

Siddhartha Deb is a Contributing Editor atThe Caravan. Currently a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard University, he is working on a nonfiction book to be published by Viking.