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Faith and fact

Faith and fact

I do want to stand by an honourable group and individuals..."

So read an angry missive from a reader in response to Mint’s page 1 story (on 25 May) on Infosys Technologies being investigated for visa fraud in the US.

The reader is one of the rare few who write diligently to Mint’s editors and reporters. His preferred vehicle is the postcard, and my assistant has an impressive collection of them in a file on her desk (I asked her to start one because I wanted to see what kind of stamina this reader had; I now know he has a lot). The gentleman in question does, on occasion, try and speak to me over the phone. And sometimes, when he feels very strongly about something—like he did of Mint’s coverage of safety issues with and sales of the Tata Nano—he sends an email. This time, he sent an email accusing Mint of sensationalizing the issue.

I have covered Infosys since the early 1990s and probably know the company (warts and all) a whole lot better than the reader. It’s a well-governed company, has its heart in the right place, and is managed largely by people who come from good, honest middle-class stock, yet I would be loath to “stand by" the company. I would be equally loath to crucify the company. This isn’t about belief. It is about knowledge. And, based on the facts, I have no way of knowing whether Infosys is guilty or innocent in this particular instance.

True to its character as a transparent and well-managed company, Infosys has been more than willing to share all the information it can regarding the investigation in the US. Such transparency has its advantages, especially when it is exhibited by as respected a company as Infosys: several of Mint’s rivals were more than happy to spin the story and present the investigation as “details" being sought from the company.

My personal opinion on the US visa regime—not that it matters—is that it is repressive and protectionist. That doesn’t mean I condone any misrepresentation by companies or individuals that effectively violates a country’s visa rules. India should lobby for a change in the rules, but it (and Indian companies) should respect them while they exist.

There is the school of thought popularized by Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek that suggests breaking such rules is part of free-market capitalism.

Interestingly—and this is a digression—former minister and journalist Arun Shourie got some stick when, in a 2003 speech, he drew from the philosophy of von Hayek to condone some of Reliance Industries Ltd’s acts in the 1980s because “by exceeding the limits in which those restrictions sought to impound them, they helped create the case for scrapping those regulations."

I also have a suspicion—not that it should matter—that some Indian companies play hard and fast with US visa rules.

My belief—again, not that it should matter—is that Infosys isn’t the kind of company to do this, but I have no way of knowing that for sure.

The gap between knowledge and belief is, at once, nuanced and glaring. It is also one that most people are willing to span in one subjective leap of faith.

The day our partner The Wall Street Journal broke the story about former McKinsey chief Rajat Gupta’s involvement in the Galleon insider trading case, I received a call from a person who was leading an informal effort (read: one not explicitly sanctioned by the company for which this individual worked) to defend the man.

“CEOs, bureaucrats and ministers are all willing to write op-eds defending him," said this person. “Will Mint carry them?"

“We must do something," this individual added.

I’ve met Rajat Gupta twice (once fleetingly and the second time to talk about the Indian School of Business), spoken to him on the phone once, and been part of a conference call with him and a few members of The Indus Entrepreneurs once (yes, a so-called card memory is the only thing I have going for me)—not enough interaction for me to form an opinion of his probity. And even had I formed one, it would have been an opinion, not knowledge about what he did in a particular instance.

I told the person pushing the testimonials this and added that I thought no self-respecting editor or newspaper would carry the op-eds.

Then, I asked the person the original question: How do you know?

“I can’t believe Rajat would have done this," was the response.

That’s still belief, though—not knowledge.

PS: I heard a funny story about Infosys and Rajat Gupta once. Sometime in the late 1990s, Infosys got a mail from McKinsey saying Rajat Gupta would like to visit their office. The company was thrilled; it set up meetings for him with several key executives including lunch with some of the founders. The day arrived, so did Gupta, and Infosys discovered it wasn’t really him. It was a Rajat Gupta, and he did work for McKinsey, but he was a consultant from the India office who shared his name with the firm’s managing partner. To the company’s credit, it went through the motions.

Write to sukumar.r@livemint.com

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