x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

As women gain power, will female scandals in India rise?

Why are there more scandals among male politicians? Because there are more men in positions of power? Shoba Narayan has other theories.

Even for those Indians who consider themselves inured to the scandals that dog this country, the last month has been one never-ending "tamasha" - comedy or mockery, depending on how you look at it.

On stage left is the former Goldman Sachs director Rajat Gupta whose "lust for zeros" has brought him down from the pinnacle of power. Gupta is appealing for a retrial on charges of insider trading. On stage right is Phaneesh Murthy, who was forced to leave his position as CEO of iGate on account of sexual harassment charges.

Mr Murthy, previously a star performer at Infosys, had to leave the firm under the cloud of similar charges. Both charges were settled out of court.

Currently occupying stage centre is N Srinivasan, the president of the Board of Cricket Control of India, who is refusing to resign even though his son-in-law has been arrested for betting on IPL games presumably using insider information.

This match-fixing scandal has already claimed the heads of cricketer Sreesanth and a few bookies.  While the circumstances and accusations are different, the perpetrators are all men. As a woman, I wonder about it.

When a powerful man falls from grace, be it Tiger Woods or Eliot Spitzer, the disgraced US politician, the usual explanation that is trotted out is Lord Acton's self-evident yet vacuous quote about how "All power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely".  People in power are lured into thinking that they are above the law; that they can do anything and will not be caught. Does this apply equally to powerful women as it does to men? Or it it because there are statistically more men in positions of power that they are the ones getting caught? In other words, as women reach the upper echelons of power, will they also become embroiled in scandals and get caught in the process?

I tend to think that statistics play an opposite effect: because so few women attain positions of power, they tend to be doubly careful with respect to holding on to it.

For every Eliot Spitzer who got caught, there is a Kamala Harris who came out of a controversy involving the US president, Barack Obama, with grace. Mr Obama had described her as the "best looking attorney general in the country", a comment that sparked controversy and led the president to apologise to her.

The other explanation is that such failings are endemic to one's personality - a psychological disease as it were. For every Sreesanth who got lured by greed, there is a Sachin Tendulkar who has played for years without a stain on his career or character. Murthy (Phaneesh) may have become involved with a series of women, but the other Murthy (N R Narayana) stands as an example of integrity and character.

This explanation holds partial merit. But it doesn't quite explain why so few women have these so-called psychological failings that cause them to self-destruct and do so publicly.

I believe that in the years to come, statistics will hold sway. As more women gain power, they too will fall from grace in a public, self-destructive manner.

But I also think that women in power will take fewer risks than men in similar situations. Witness, Angela Merkel, Madeleine Albright, Queen Noor of Jordan, Margaret Thatcher, Sheikha Moza of Qatar, Sonia Gandhi.  The way they came to power is varied. Some earned it; some gained it through marriage; and some were born to it.  But none - so far, anyway - has sullied it.

In her book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg alludes to the fact that most women who are successful feel like "frauds". Perhaps this is why so few of them trip up. They are so busy proving that they are worthy of success that the thought of throwing it all away is anathema to them.

In order to play with power, you have to feel entitled to it. Tiger Woods had God-given talent that "entitled" him to his success. Eliot Spitzer came to it from a political family and felt like an entitled crusader against Wall Street. Even Rajat Gupta and Phaneesh Murthy, who came from more modest circumstances, had been in top positions for long enough to feel entitled to perks.

Perhaps women don't feel similarly entitled. It may cause them to back off from the conference tables in the board room; it may cause them not to lean in. But it does not cause them to throw it all away for the sake of a fling or a gamble.

 

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India.