Maheshwer Peri’s long way around
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One evening in mid-February, Maheshwer Peri, former president and publisher of the Outlook group and founder of Careers360 magazine, appeared on an edition of CNN-IBN’s programme Face the Nation opposite Arindam Chaudhuri, self-styled management guru and head of the Indian Institute of Planning and Management (IIPM), who had managed that week to get a Gwalior court to ban 73 Web pages containing “defamatory” content about his controversial business school.
There were other guests on the show, including Pavan Duggal, an expert in cyber law, and Shivam Vij, the editor of Kafila, a blog on politics and culture. But most of the debate centred around a belligerent Chaudhuri, who sat in the studio in one of his trademark shiny suits, hair slicked back into a pony tail, and the sober, bespectacled Peri, beamed in via video link.
Although the host, Sagarika Ghose, an old colleague of Peri from his Outlook days, tried her best to control it, the discussion quickly descended into a shouting match. Vij was outraged by Chaudhuri’s concept of the term “defamatory”; Peri wore the weary expression of someone who has been in the ring for a while. Once he engaged with Chaudhuri, however, he lost any semblance of cool.
“Arindam—just stop this nonsense please,” he interrupted, as his opponent began to shout.
“Be very careful about what you say,” said Chaudhuri, his toothy but engaging smile giving way to a cartoon scowl.
“Arindam, file another case! I don’t care! File another case!” Peri shouted back, drowning out Chaudhuri’s words.
If there is any truth in the adage that a man is known through his enemies, then 44-year-old Peri should be very well recognized by now. Peri had a 17-year career with the Outlook group of publications, which was bankrolled by billionaire investor Rajan Raheja (and continues to be). As publisher, Peri didn’t exactly endear himself to journalists—though publishers rarely do—but along the way he made a real adversary, Chaudhuri, and the feud between them has come to define the direction his career has taken.
Chaudhuri, 41, has managed to convince thousands of aspirational students that IIPM is a viable passage to coveted jobs with multinational companies. Apart from the school, which has 18 branches across India, Chaudhuri runs a clutch of publications and a consulting firm. He has produced movies (one with Amitabh Bachchan) and has had Shah Rukh Khan conduct a quiz for him. He has bankrolled award shows and, although in recent years he has kept a low profile, there was a time when his sleek visage dominated newspapers such as The Times of India, Hindustan Times and The Hindu through high-budget advertising campaigns.
He has also become a controversial public figure. In 2011, after a profile of him by Siddhartha Deb (which formed the first chapter of his book, The Beautiful and the Damned) was published in The Caravan, Chaudhuri took that magazine—as well as the book’s publisher Penguin, and Google—to court for Rs.50 crore in damages, in the remote city of Silchar in Assam. Deb’s book was published in India minus Chaudhuri’s profile which, while certainly no hagiography, was not nearly as uncomplimentary as some of the other portraits that have been written of him.
Among the more damaging articles written against Chaudhuri’s institute are those that have appeared on the website and the print version of Careers360, which are collected online in a section headed IIPM—Best only in claims? While Peri says that he has no vendetta against IIPM in particular, Chaudhuri maintains that he is the victim of a smear campaign. As a result, IIPM has lodged lawsuits against Peri and his magazine. In an email interview, Chaudhuri said Peri had “acted very unreasonably—quite as if he were working at the behest of a competitor” and has kept “writing straightforward lies about IIPM”.
That day on the CNN-IBN show, Ghose asked Peri why he was still engaged in a legal battle with IIPM. Peri’s response was curt. “This is a case worth my time,” he said, “and I’ll fight it out till the end.”
The way up
Peri has proven his tenacity. Born in August 1969 into a lower middle class family in Andhra Pradesh (his father worked for the government), he studied in a state school and lived in a hostel for five years.
“It was completely funded by the government of Andhra Pradesh,” he said of his education, “My fee was completely funded, my hostel was completely funded; in the five years from intermediate to graduation, I saw the poorest of people. They would get 10 days off, but wouldn’t go home because they couldn’t afford it.”
When Peri was 17, his father died. His relatives suggested that he leave school and take the government job in the Hyderabad civil court that was on offer (the government offers work to the kin of its officers who die while still on the job). Peri, though, wanted to study, and his mother supported him.
“So I understand the value of education having come from that level,” he said. “I am one of these people who came from a small town.”
Instead of working for the civil court, Peri graduated in mathematics and economics and, in 1991, became one of the youngest students in the country to pass his chartered accountancy exams at the age of 21 (he came first in Andhra Pradesh and 23rd in India, he says). He started his career as an investment banker with SBI Capital Markets Ltd.
“My mother was taking gold loans for all this (his higher studies), so the first thing I had to do was pay her back,” Peri said. “I gave my first salary to her, and I might have bought a good shirt for myself.”
After SBI, Peri went to work for Raheja’s Hathaway Investments in 1995. It was good timing. In 1994, Raheja was looking to expand his interests with a media investment, according to former publisher and media executive Deepak Shourie, who was then working for Aroon Purie’s India Today group, but moved to help Raheja set up the new venture. Raheja declined Mint’s request for comment.
By the early 1990s,the India Today group’s eponymous magazine that had set the benchmark for Indian journalism for over a decade, was beginning to look tired. It didn’t help that it was a fortnightly. The country, too, seemed on the move, and it was in this background that Outlook magazine was launched in October of 1995.
Raheja approved the plan for a weekly news magazine, Shourie said, and invested about Rs.20 crore in the venture. Vinod Mehta, the former editor of Debonair, Pioneer and Indian Post, came on board to be the editor of Outlook and assembled a fine team of journalists. Mehta declined to be interviewed for this story.
Shourie headed the business, and started by selling chartered advertising to companies in 12-issue chunks, with the guarantee of a circulation of 50,000 in upscale metros or proportional refunds, he said. Outlook was a weekly, printed on glossy paper, and was “not as laborious” as its rivals. It was both an editorial and a commercial success, increasing its circulation to 225,000 readers by 1999, he said.
Peri says that he started off as “a back-room boy” in charge of finance—Raheja’s man in New Delhi where the magazine was (and is) based. “Rajan wanted somebody to look after the finances,” said Shourie. “They wanted one of their own people with their ear to the ground.”
Peri didn’t become publisher until 1998, when Shourie quit. “Initially, I thought I was a stopgap arrangement,” Peri said of his promotion in his late 20s. “But it went on and on. Suddenly I was supposed to handle Outlook; I didn’t know whether I was capable.”
He was, according to R. Rajmohan, who worked with Peri at Outlook for eight years. “There’s no doubt that Mahesh contributed immensely to the growth of the Outlook group,” he said. “From two magazines to eight, and a highly profitable travel books division, all have happened when he was at the helm. He can legitimately claim credit for that.”
The B-school surveys
By the late 1990s, business school surveys were increasingly popular accoutrements to newspapers and magazines. Educational institution surveys and rankings were becoming big business, generating a lot of money in advertising revenue, according to Shourie. “At the time, the biggest advertising category in print was education,” he said.
Premchand Palety was one of the first to tap into this vein of interest—although Business Today had launched India’s first B-school survey in 1998—with a pilot project in 1999.
“At the time there was not much information available about business schools and they were looked at more like a placement agency,” said Palety, who heads C fore, a multidisciplinary research organization that produces election surveys, market research and opinion polls. “So we set up parameters to measure standards of institutions.” The criteria included the number of faculty who had authored books, the quality of teaching publications offered in the schools, and the amount of interface and engagement they offered students.
Palety approached Outlook with the idea in 2001, he said. “From their side it was good business sense; that issue was a sell-out issue and they got lots of advertising. The policy was that the advertisers wouldn’t know the rankings. We created a boundary between advertising and research for this, so the credibility went up.” For eight years, C fore continued to produce surveys for Outlook.
Over that period, Peri assumed more responsibility and became more involved in the surveys, said Palety, who met Peri in 2001, when he was in his early 30s and newly made publisher of the group.
“He was young to have that responsibility,” remembered Palety. “When I first met him, I thought he was some marketing person. I didn’t realize he was the publisher. He was discussing the rankings. Mahesh’s mandate was to increase sales, but he was very professional and later he took a bold stance against IIPM.”
Peri had established a reputation as being a tough manager even in those days, when his principal aim was to grow new business. “Rajan’s business model was very simple,” said a former colleague at Outlook, who did not want to be named. “He had a hand-picked man from finance, accounts or investment banking background for each title and he gives them quite a lot of freedom to run the ventures, and then he controls (everything) through monthly meetings.”
Peri is also something of a puritan. He is vegetarian, does not drink or smoke and avoids social occasions. His abstemious nature is a subject of bemusement among his friends.
“Sometimes in a five star hotel he will go for a salad buffet,” said Chittoor Raveendra, a professor at the Indian School of Business (ISB) in Hyderabad, who has been friends with Peri for more than 20 years. “He can work faster than others. What will take someone else two or three days, he will do in a few hours. Once he is after a task, he will be on it 24x7 with consistent focus until he has finished the work at hand.”
The fight with IIPM
In 2003, the Outlook C fore business school survey ranked IIPM in fourth place in terms of industry interface, says Peri. However, there were complications. “IIPM fudged their data,” Palety said. “They gave us data and, when we did the audit, they showed us wrong documents and when we put the data on the website, we got a lot of complaints. They claimed 100% placement and they were only 50%, so we dropped them from the rankings and blacklisted them. IIPM were the only ones we dropped.”
IIPM, Peri realized, might not be all that its glittering advertisements made it out to be, and, if so, the problem might be symptomatic of a larger rot within educational institutions. He started investigating the claims put forward by other graduate schools. “After that I made sure I got into the rankings to make sure nothing else would go wrong. I was monitoring the survey myself,” he said.
After the ranking came out, Peri says he had a visit from a parent of one of IIPM’s students claiming that his son had not been placed. “It hit me,” said Peri. “I called up C fore to get confirmation from IIPM. I said that if you have 100% placement then give us the details of that. They said, ‘We don’t share this (information),’ so we pulled the ranking.”
In 2005, Outlook published a notice informing its readers that it would no longer rank IIPM as part of its surveys. Though Peri didn’t know it at the time, that notice, and the response to it, would be the start of a protracted battle. Chaudhuri disputes Peri’s version of events. He published a conflicting response in February 2010 in his own magazine, The Sunday Indian.
The fallout could not have been too dramatic for Outlook, which published only one education ranking issue a year, said Palety. “There would be many other players like IIPM, but Chaudhuri used to spend Rs.75 crore a year on advertising. Newspapers wouldn’t write against him,” he said.
In 2008, Peri wrote a column in Outlook that talked about how the business of education was becoming poisonous for students, and the problem of falsified data and bogus foreign tie-ups. He mentioned IIPM. After it was published, Chaudhuri asked for a meeting with editor Mehta and him.
“As I was the author of the column, he said, ‘You are wrong,’ and I said ‘I am right.’ We agreed to disagree,” Peri said. Things did not end there. “I got some 300 letters for that (column),” he said. “I asked our editor (for permission) to write another column and he agreed. The problem is not confined to an institute alone. So I decided that I would not single out any institute. After the column was published, 11-12 institutes called me to say ‘you have written against me’. It just proves the point that the misrepresentation is widespread!”
Peri’s enthusiasm for his subject grew. After consultations with his colleagues, he decided to leave Outlook to dedicate himself full-time to writing about education. The move took time. In March of 2009, he started Pathfinder Publishing India Pvt. Ltd, which brings out Careers360, and focuses on vetting the institutions that teenagers seek to join.
While he would continue to work for the Outlook group for another three years, eventually stepping down as the group’s president and publisher in March 2012, Peri was in the process of repositioning himself as a “career counsellor”, checking the credentials of the gatekeepers to the corporate world.
The new magazine, Careers360, would do everything that Peri had wanted to be able to since his first column against IIPM. It focused entirely on exposing the faults in the system of educational institutions—Peri’s new-found passion.
The first edition of Careers360 (April 2009) was meant to include an article on malpractices by educational institutions. “We wrote and spoke to many institutes. one such mail had gone to IIPM also. It was never meant to be against any single institute,” Peri said.
However, before the publication, “he hit back”, said Peri, of Chaudhuri’s reaction. “He went and took an injunction from a magisterial court in Delhi showing the earlier two articles, saying, ‘This guy is inclined to be writing against me so please stop him from publishing as it hurts my business.’”
“We launched Careers360 in April without the story. We dug deep for more information on IIPM to fight the legal battle. We suddenly had a few cases against us,” Peri said. He went to the Delhi high court immediately and showed them all the information he had amassed. “Based on the information submitted, the high court was kind enough to modify the injunction and allowed us to write what we think is in public interest as long as we gave IIPM the chance to respond, not exceeding half a page. We also had the right to rebut the response of IIPM in the same article. What was a generic story turned into IIPM—Best only in claims?.
The story came out in June 2009. Chaudhuri continued to file legal suits against Peri and his publication in courts in Dehradun, Guwahati, Patiala and Delhi.
Despite their differences, Chaudhuri and Peri have one thing in common: they are both the most successful men in their families by a long way. But their achievements have been brought about by very different means, said Raveendra of ISB. “Peri has come up through hard work. He is somewhat idealistic, he hates those who go for short cuts.”
Positioning himself as a career counsellor rather than an editor or journalist is part of Peri’s backlash against the mainstream media. “Mainstream media completely fails in its depth and understanding of the subject (education),” Peri said. “Let’s not get into journalism at this point in time. I want to be India’s most credible career counsellor. We work on seven verticals, B-schools are just one of them.”
At times, his rhetoric sounds similar to Chaudhuri’s: “I want to ensure that if a student has a dream, and the wish and the aspiration to study and go up in his life and career, I can show him how to open those doors,” Peri said. “When you come to me and say ‘Sir I am a 58 percentile student, but I want to do MBA and I have three colleges in mind,’ then I will take out two and add five more.”
Chaudhuri responded to this idea with derision, in an email response: “That’s interesting news! After taking tonnes of moneys from educational advertisers year after year, giving them rankings too, he is now an educational counsellor? I am sure his advertisers would love that! People who are clueless about what education is all about, who have never had anything critical to do with education and who have only done mutually beneficial ad sales with educational institutions, trying to become counsellors would be laughable. What credibility are we talking about here frankly.”
Asked whether the two men had ever tried to solve their dispute face to face, both Chaudhuri and Peri insist on the sincerity of their own efforts. “My last message to him to resolve the issue was as recent as February this year,” Chaudhuri wrote. “I suggested to him that we meet at a neutral venue, with our lawyers if he pleases, and sit down and sort out our differences. He kept insisting in a very immature manner that he would talk only if I come to his office! I gave up.”
Peri admits he has been drawn into a costly and lengthy battle, but has the indignation of someone who is convinced he is right: “In terms of costs it’s a huge hole in my pocket. A huge hole. Will I give up? No, I will not.”
Palety, who has his own suit against Chaudhuri pending at Patiala House court in Delhi, estimated that the hole is at least Rs.1 crore deep—a figure Peri confirmed.
Some speculate that Peri’s long fight is not only for moral reasons, but borne out of a desire to bolster his credentials as the nation’s career adviser. “After his fight with IIPM his passion only increased, that’s the kind of person he is,” said the former unnamed colleague quoted earlier. “But he also saw a great business opportunity because there was such an information gap. He realizes that he has to survive in an environment where you are pitching yourself as an education counsellor; you need credibility with your readers.”
Peri’s explanation is simple: “Why do all these people survive?” he said, of institutions like IIPM. “Because there is no stamina from the common man or even from a big organization like yours or mine to fight these cases to the end. If someone stands up and says, ‘I will take this to its logical end,’ these guys will be over. You need someone who has information, access, power and intelligence. That’s me completely. These people have been going around filing cases and settling them and ensuring that no one opens their mouth.”
“I am saying that I will be the one to bell the cat. I am belling the cat,” he added.