Sweet Smell of Success: How Arindam Chaudhuri made a fortune off the aspirations—and insecurities—of India’s middle classes.

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 middle-class, 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 middle-class 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 Arindam Chaudhuri?” 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.

AArindam had told me a story about his childhood that involved a strike at his father’s management school in Gurgaon. He described the strikers as “rowdy elements,” students who had failed their courses and objected to the academic demands made of them. The strike climaxed in a telephone call late one night to his father. An anonymous man, speaking hurriedly, said that a student had been stabbed on campus. Arindam’s father took a taxi, accompanied by one of his employees, a canteen manager. Two hundred metres from the campus, he saw a group of students armed with iron rods waiting for him. He told the driver to turn around, went home and took his family to a hotel. The stabbing had been a ruse to bring him to the campus, and even the canteen manager had been part of the conspiracy.

/r/bharat Thread Parent