For over a decade starting in the mid-1990s into the early 2000s, Infosys co-founder N.R. Narayana Murthy enjoyed a well-earned, larger-than-life, holier-than-thou persona through his various public interventions.
As politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen (and everybody else down the food chain, including the media) ran adrift in post-liberalised India, Murthy struck the right note, saying the right thing in just the right sort of way and at the right place, which made him the darling of the urban, literate, English-speaking, TV-watching middle-classes.
While his capitalist-compatriots hogged all the profits, there was Murthy making millionaires out of his own employees by giving them stock options in the company. While everybody shamelessly latched on to power, there he was resigning from the Bangalore international airport project because of a spat with H.D. Deve Gowda.
While everybody was hailing India’s education system, there he was pointing out the problems in them. Why, he was even credited with contemplating to revive Rajaji‘s Swatantra Party, which opposed socialism and rigid controls, as a way out of the morass that mainstream political parties and politicians had pushed India into.
Narayana Murthy was even spoken of as a possible President.
But of all things that Murthy said in his strange, American twang, the one that struck a chord among “People Like Us” (PLUs) was his defence of merit as the lifeblood of a country on the ascendant. As politicians rolled out reservations left, right and centre to protect votebanks, Murthy (who idolised Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew) bravely batted for meritocracy.
“Infosys is an absolute meritocracy. Even in a meritocracy, other things being equal, you have to give opportunity to the more experienced candidate. Whether it was Nandan Nilekani, Kris Gopalakrishnan or Shibulal, they are absolutely top class and they have been running this marathon longer than some others. Their is no question of (any discrimination) between founder, non-founder. I have no hesitation in saying we are the most professional company in the world,” he said in a 2011 interview.
Which is why the drama surrounding Narayana Murthy’s 30-year-old son Rohan Murthy shows NRN in poor light.
First the 30-year-old (who is married to the heiress of the TVS group) was brought in as an executive assistant to NRN following Murthy’s return to Infosys, which in itself was something NRN did not advocate in public. (Rohan Murthy, who is “on leave” from Harvard, was paid a farcical salary of one rupee a month, apparently at his request.)
Now, less than three months of the appointment, comes a move to elevate executive assistant Rohan Murthy as vice-president Rohan Murthy although NRN had said just three months ago that there would be no leadership role for his son. Obviously, questions of corporate governance, a phrase that repeatedly tripped out of NRN’s tongue have been raised.
Does Narayana Murthy’s hypocrisy stand exposed with the latest move? Should the ministry of corporate affairs allow Rohan Murthy’s elevation to go ahead? Can a publicly listed company be so susceptible to the pressures of a founding family? Does NRN’s move to elevate his son show that blood is thicker than water?
Is something rotten at the Sikkapatte Important Company of Karnataka?
Or is it all OK because dynasties are a way of life in India?