The year of the scapegoat: Carlos Ghosn, the Indian millennial, and the fall guys of 2019
This year has not been kind to the species most preferred for sacrificial offerings.
This year has not been kind to the species most preferred for sacrificial offerings. Many large corporations were forced to kill their fattened calves to atone for business practices that left a lot to be desired. Trust is a fragile thing. As most businesses are wont to know, goodwill is the last redoubt against customer attrition in a warped market flooded with seemingly limitless options.
Storied brands were rocked by scandal. Heads rolled. In most cases, the scapegoats lurk in the corridors of power, and rank among the praetorian class, privy to the hushed conversations that happen at the high table. But when things go wrong, collective responsibility is shunned for the greater good. The scapegoat-designate is identified, and led to slaughter.
Carlos Ghosn, the former Nissan CEO, was ambushed at Tokyo’s Haneda airport by prosecutors armed with whistleblower testimonials. Ironically, the first call he made for legal assistance was to one of the key figures in the cabal that engineered his ouster. Profits had dried up for the Japanese carmaker, and the alliance with Renault and Mitsubishi had failed to catapult it above the likes of Toyota and Volkswagen.
Innovation was lacking, and some insiders resented Ghosn’s desire to merge with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) as a bulwark against lower sales and disruption from electric vehicles and self-driving vehicles. Before he tendered his resignation in September, Hiroto Saikawa, who served as chief executive under Carlos Ghosn, acknowledged that there were elements inside Nissan that harboured nationalist sentiments, and wanted the company to break its alliance with Renault.
At that point, it seemed as if Nissan’s halcyon days were behind it. When Ghosn joined the company in 1996, it was near bankruptcy. He orchestrated a turnaround by cutting costs, and expanding the brand’s global footprint, a feat that earnt him the nickname “Mr. Fix It.” He was paid generously for his services, a bit too generously, according to his critics, given the altered circumstances the industry now finds itself it. Ghosn, the Brazilian-born French executive of Lebanese extraction had to be let go. He argues he was framed.
Airports have emerged as a happy hunting ground for prosecutors. Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, the daughter of the company’s founder, was arrested by Canadian officials at Vancouver airport. She was detained on the basis of a United States arrest warrant, which has accused the telecommunication and hardware company of spying on behalf of the Chinese government.
In a move intended to arm-twist China into addressing the trade imbalance between the two countries, American companies like Google were asked to withdraw support to Huawei. Ms. Wanzhou was released on bail, but is still shackled to a GPS-monitoring ankle bracelet. In companies that aren’t family-owned, the fall guys are usually high-ranking professionals - outsiders considered dispensable to the cause.
German prosecutors charged former Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn in April 2019 over his role in the Dieselgate scandal. He stands accused of tax evasion, defalcating millions of dollars, and engaging in unfair practices. Ferdinand Piech - the grandson of the VW Beetle pioneer Ferdinand Porsche - left his role as the head of VW’s supervisory board in late 2015 when it was discovered that the company gamed the software deployed on millions of its cars to cheat on emissions tests. Investigators could not find evidence linking Piech to the scandal.
In 2019, Boeing found its wings clipped by aviation regulators around the world after two of its 737 MAX jets crashed, killing 346 people. The Chicago-headquartered company, which is the U.S.’s top exporter, lost USD 40 billion since the crisis erupted. Kevin McAllister, the head of Boeing’s jetliner business was unseated from the corporate cockpit. The company’s CEO Dennis Muilenburg was shamed by a Senate committee for putting ‘flying coffins’ in the air.
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However, the fear of flying does not enhance one’s mortality, as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will testify. The Australian national has been cooped up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for seven years. Scotland Yard lay in wait at his doorstep to arrest him if he stepped out. Wan, frail, and prematurely aged, the only way out of prison for Assange seemed to be in a coffin. That is, till he surrendered in April.
The silver-haired Assange was accused of being in cahoots with Russian intelligence. WikiLeaks was instrumental in leaking official cables by American officials including Hilary Clinton, the Democratic candidate in the 2016 Presidential election. Assange was made a scapegoat by liberal elites miffed at their failure to prevent Donald Trump’s ascension to the White House. Assange is currently fighting a legal battle to prevent his extradition to the U.S.
A few miles from the site of Assange’s prolonged incarceration in London, Daniel Levy, the chairman of Tottenham FC, was planning personnel changes at his football club following a string of lackluster results. In November 20, barely months after guiding the North London club to the final of the UEFA Champions League, Mauricio Pochettino got the sack.
He was replaced by Jose Mourinho, a manager whose footballing philosophy is best described by the phrase ‘parking the bus,’ – a negative term used for teams that prefer to sit back and defend against technically superior opposition. Ironically, the phrase was coined by Jose himself in a post-match tirade against a Spurs side he faced as Chelsea manager in 2004.
Politicians and the parties they represent are also given to acting defensively, especially when besieged by uncomfortable questions. The ongoing impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump offer a case in point. House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff used a similar phrase to describe House Republicans’ efforts at finding scapegoats in the Ukraine scandal. He said Trump was throwing his aides “under the bus” in a bid to insulate himself from blame.
The history of the ‘underbusing’ can be traced to Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands. In 1982, Argentina’s president Leopoldo Galtieri ordered the invasion of the Falkland Islands, an overseas territory of Great Britain in the south Atlantic. It was viewed as a ploy to destabilize a Margaret Thatcher-led government that was still in its infancy. “President Galtieri had pushed her under the bus, which the gossips had said was the only means of her removal,” said an editorial in The Times of London.
It has been nearly half a century since the British Empire wound up, but rumblings of discontent are still being felt in former territories like Hong Kong. It was returned to China in 1997, under an agreement that gave citizens of the former colony more freedoms than their counterparts in the Chinese mainland.
Things got out of hand earlier this year when Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam proposed a bill that would allow citizens to be extradited to China. Pro-democracy protests have rocked the nation, with analysts arguing that Beijing has thrown Lam under the bus. The fall guy walks alone, but not always.
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When asked whether government policies like demonetization are responsible for the tailspin in the auto industry, India’s finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman said in September that the slowdown was caused by the skewed lifestyle choices of ‘millennials’ - a hapless generation that has allegedly abandoned the experience of owning a car in favour of ride-hailing platforms like Ola and Uber.
Nobody is safe in a world where expediency at all costs has become the new normal. The fall guy has few options to appeal. The blame game is played out in the court of public opinion. Everybody loves a villain.