‘It’s Punita’s Merits that Count, Not Who Her Spouse Is’
A cross-section of top CEOs say there is no conflict of interest in her serving on Infy board; Sinha says she has the right to pursue her career even if her husband is a minister
Kala Vijayraghavan & Rica Bhattacharyya
Mumbai: Punita Sinha, an independent board member of Infosys Technologies and wife of a union minister, has the support of several Indian business icons who believe her continuance as a director at the software bellwether and her marital status don’t constitute any conflict of interest.
Earlier this month, former chairman NR Narayana Murthy and his founding Infosys peers Kris Gopalakrishnan, and Nandan Nilekani, raised corporate-governance concerns, one of which was Sinha’s January 2016 induction as an independent director. “She is the spouse of minister Jayant Sinha and Infosys has always steered clear of politics,” said Murthy. Jayant Sinha is India’s minister of state for civil aviation. Former market regulator M Damodaran backed the quality of Sinha’s experience. “It is grossly unfair not to attach any value to the accomplishments, qualifications and experience of a woman professional merely because she happens to be the wife of a politician,” said Damodaran, who headed the Securiti- es and Exchange Board of India. “Punita was my colleague, for a short while, on a board, before I stepped down, and her contribution to board discussions was praiseworthy.” Damodaran is now the chairperson of Excellence Enablers that provides training to directors. An alumna of Wharton and IITDelhi, Sinha’s three-decade career has covered marquee names in glo-
bal finance — Blackstone, Oppenheimer and JP Morgan. At present, she is the founding partner of Asiafocused investment firm Pacific Paradigm Advisors, and her profile on the Infosys website credits her with a leading role in drawing some of the initial overseas funding into Indian stocks in the early 1990s.
In an email response to ET from Boston, Punita Sinha said: “This is really about broader societal matters rather than about a specific situation. In my case, I have had a long and successful career with significant fiduciary responsibilities that I have fulfilled with total integrity.” She added: “My husband chose to give up his professional career a few years ago to serve the country, but that should not imply that I too must give up my professional career that I have pursued for almost 30 years.”
Infosys had inducted former US senator Larry Pressler, a politician, as a director on the company’s board in 2001 when Murthy was chairman of the Bengaluru-based company. Infosys’ board has three women independent directors, the other two being Roopa Kudva, managing director at private-equity fund Omidyar Network India Advisors, and Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, chairman of pharmaceutical major Biocon.
“It is ridiculous to even raise such issues about women who become part of boards based on their capabilities and professional worth,” Marico Industries chairman Harsh Mariwala said, in reference to the question of potential conflict of interest.
Power couples have previously held board positions in Indian pub- Ind. Director, Infosys Former Infosys chairman NR Narayana Murthy and his founding peers Kris Gopalakrishnan and Nandan Nilekani raised concerns about Punita Sinha’s January 2016 induction as an independent director
lic companies. There was no objection about a conflict of interest when TVS chairman Venu Srinivasan was nominated to the Tata Sons board, even as his wife Mallika Srinivasan, chairman of tractor maker Tafe Industries, was on the board of two Tata companies.
“Punita, a distinguished scholar, could add a lot of value to any bo- ard… if her husband happens to be a political leader and that becomes a disadvantage for her, that would be highly tragic,” says Arun Duggal, chairman of local ratings firm ICRA. “We must distinguish a woman’s capabilities from her family circumstances. I feel there should be no controversy about Punita.”
At the Infosys conference this Monday, board chairman R Seshasayee praised Punita, saying a woman should not be judged by the profession of her husband. His views were shared by women business leaders. “Somehow women are held to standards not always expected of their male colleagues,” said Vinita Bali, former chief executive of cookies to dairy-products maker Britannia. “If you happen to be related to the promoter for example, the appointment is seen to be a ‘family affair’ and not professional enough. How often do we hear the same question when the brother or son of the promoter is appointed to the Board?”
In 2015, Ireena Vittal, an independent director on the Axis Bank board, resigned citing conflict of interest. Her husband Gopal Vittal is the chief executive of Bharti Airtel, which won a payment bank licence in partnership with Axis Bank’s rival Kotak Mahindra Bank. Axis Bank officials then said Ireena resigned voluntarily.
“Today, every country wants more women to come into the workforce as that improves economic productivity and growth,” Punita said. “So, disqualifying experienced professional women because of their spouse would not set a good precedence for inspiring younger women.”
According to Rama Bijapurkar, senior independent director on various boards, suggestions that marriage to a politician would compromise integrity and fiduciary responsibility are far-fetched. “If there is an objection to the individual concerned, then we need to hear a more specific articulation of it.”
My husband chose to give up his professional career... to serve the country, but that should not imply that I too must give up my professional career PUNITA SINHA