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Nirav Modi and the myth of the path to success

Livemint logo Livemint 25-02-2018 Manu Joseph

A few months ago, GQ magazine tried to understand the extraordinary success of the jeweller Nirav Modi. Was he “a marketing genius”, or “a master diamantaire” who knew how to extract work from talented craftsmen, or a capitalist romantic who wanted to rebel against tradition and “make a billion-dollar point”? The article did not ponder other options. It praised his “imperious, ballsy core” and his “razor-sharp PR strategy”. In 2016, a short profile on CNBC.com attributed his success to “a passion for diamonds and an understanding of luxury”. The profile conveyed that he was self-made, a coveted label that implies innate brilliance. He was quoted in the profile as saying that he “never borrowed from family”.

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Now we know where he borrowed from—several banks, reportedly collecting thousands of crores in alleged collusion with executives from a public sector bank who broke the rules to help him. He was a player in a corrupt system, and now faces serious charges.

Until a few weeks ago, a vast number of small and aspiring entrepreneurs saw in his life and words, as they normally do see in the lives of billionaires, a path to material success. But in the telling of his story, in the analysis of his success, what he omitted was a fact he must have known—that he was committing a fraud, or a technical fraud. It was an important omission. Even if we consider the possibility that he is “a marketing genius” and that he had a deep “understanding of luxury”, the fact is that his extraordinary and swift success over the past decade was built on some shady dealings. The real message was that you have to game the system to be a very rich person in India. If you do not know how, or if you do not have “the ballsy core” for it, you are nurturing a wrong aspiration. We do not know if this message is true. We only know that in the case of several disgraced rich people, it has been true.

This is the sort of detail that is usually omitted from inspirational stories—an unflattering or a nefarious truth that is usually so crucial to the success of the inspirational figure that every other factor is trivial. What if the truth is that every analysis of success in the world contains such crucial omissions? What if corruption, or even luck, is not merely a contributor to success but more fundamental than that? What if success is often a consequence of unspoken or inglorious or even unknown and mysterious causes? What if the publicly shared reasons for material success are, in reality, inconsequential? This means the notion of The Path is an illusion, and the entire aspiration market has been fed only the placebo of inspiration. The podcasts, books and interviews that explain the success of the successful might be precious as journalism, as knowledge, but even as broad guides to how to achieve your own success, they may never help you in the objective. This may explain the simple fact that most businesses fail, most people do not succeed by the measure of their own ambitions. The notion that a path to success exists makes those who fail believe that they chose the wrong paths.

It is impossible to prove that all success stories in general omit the real causes of success because the concealment is revealed to us only in some cases, for instance when the carefully spun public story begins to crumble. But there are broad indicators all around us.

The start-up fever, for instance, that is spreading to the youth in the lower-middle classes has its origins in the fables that have emerged from the higher classes. In talks and journalistic interviews, a type of young entrepreneur has created the myth that they found investors because they are bright, risk-taking innovators. What is never announced is that the start-up culture in India favours upper-class youth, who do not, in reality, take substantial risks because they will not exactly starve if they fail. Also, they are in the same social club as the venture capitalists, which makes things easier. This lottery of class is never talked about when people explain the success of a few entrepreneurs to millions who wish to make something of their own lives.

Nirav Modi and the myth of the path to success: Nirav Modi with models in NIRAV MODI jewels and outfits made of fresh flowers, in 2016. © LiveMint Nirav Modi with models in NIRAV MODI jewels and outfits made of fresh flowers, in 2016.

The lottery of class as a prerequisite for success is a common feature in many fields. Fashion, for example. A few years ago, when I attended a fashion week, I saw many “economically disadvantaged” students from Mumbai’s chawls flocking the venue. They told me that they aspired to be fashion designers. They were fascinated by the talks and designer presentations. Nobody told them that the primary requirement to succeed in Indian fashion as a designer is to be born into a particular social class. Talent itself, in some arts, is not separate from family background.

Sometimes the central cause of a success story is not concealed deliberately but buried in the slush pile of feeble analysis. For instance, the stupendous success of Chetan Bhagat. It is widely believed in the publishing industry, and among writers, that he succeeded because he had marketed himself. Since his coming, thousands of aspiring and veteran commercial fiction writers around the country have been trying to sell themselves, but with no success. They think Bhagat has shown the path.

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I do not believe Chetan Bhagat is a triumph of his own marketing, though he did try. A few years ago, journalist Ankita Mukherji wrote in Open magazine about the time when she worked as an editor for a publishing firm. She had received a manuscript by Bhagat, then an unknown banker. On the first page was a CD, with a clear marketing plan. He would, among other things, buy back copies of his own book and make it a best-seller in the initial weeks, which would then, he reasoned, make other people apart from him buy the book. But she rejected the draft of Five-Point Someone, which went on to become a sensation for a new generation of readers.

Bhagat did not become a best-seller because of his marketing plan. His story was appealing and his language was a relief to millions of Indians. Still, the chief reason he succeeded lay somewhere else—he was from the Indian Institute of Technology. We forget what a novelty it was 14 years ago—to have an IITian write a popular lowbrow story in high-school English (I believe that if he were from BITS Pilani, he would have failed). His initial readership was not only the IITians, as was commonly believed, but the hundreds of thousands who failed to get into the institutes. The reason for his success was, I believe, lost first in journalistic and literary contempt towards his novel, then in the facile glorification of the lowbrow. His success is hard to replicate because it is the consequence of a unique confluence of a man, a story, an overvalued brand and an age.

The idea that a path to success exists, though a myth, is not entirely useless. It makes people draw up plans, and do marvellous things; it collects a generation and gives them a direction. Then most fail, and some succeed for reasons we will never know.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous.

He tweets at @manujosephsan

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