First Published in Corporate Dossier, January 16, 2008
Sandeep has got his pink slip today. He is shattered.  He has worked very hard for three years.  Suddenly the market is down, the company is not doing so well, and he is left without a job.  How will he pay his bills now? How will he repay his EMI? What will he do?

He went to his boss.  The boss said, “The management said that I don’t need a 10-member team; I can do with 7. So I was asked to give pink slips to 3.” “Why me?” Sandeep demanded. The boss explained, “We looked at your  last year’s appraisal and you were second lowest, so I had to let you go. I am sorry.”  Sandeep shouted, “You said that this  appraisal business is all humbug, that you really don’t believe in it. You only said that it was a process and as far as you were concerned, it was just a tick mark. I believed you. And now it has cost me my job.” “I am sorry,” said his boss, refusing to meet his eye.

Sandeep’s boss did not tell Sandeep something: of that managers meeting where everyone made a list of their favourites and then found reasons to put the rest on the chopping block. The method of chopping – appraisal scores in some cases, insubordination in another – did not matter to the management. What mattered was the reduction in headcount. Costs had to be brought down.

The CFO does not know Sandeep’s name. For him Sandeep is but a statistic.  He told his CEO, “We cannot pay all of them so lets reduce headcount from 120 to110 or maybe 100.” The CEO said, “Maybe there is another option; we can reduce the salaries of the top management.” The CFO glared at the CEO and said, “You can reduce your salary but not mine.” None of the management was willing to cut their salary; so jobs had to go to reduce cost. Reasons were elaborately created to justify the pink slip. Now Sandeep has to fend for himself. He has no one’s patronage. He is no one’s favourite. He is a man without a leader.

Sandeep’s story has been told in the Mahabharata long ago. His name was Sunahshepa then.

One of the several versions of the story goes that there was a king, sometime identified as Harishchandra and sometime identified as Ambarisha, who had an attack of dropsy – his body swelled up with fluid. He prayed to Varuna, god of water, and said, “If I am cured, I will sacrifice my son.” As soon as he said this, he was cured. His limbs became normal. His fingers and face were no longer bloated. “My sacrifice?” asked Varuna. Now that he was cured, the king found it hard to part with his son. So he called the wise men of his kingdom, and told them to find a way out. “How can I make Varuna happy without losing my son?” he asked.

The wise men said a son is defined in many ways according to the scriptures: one is the son you produce biologically, another is the son who is adopted and finally there is another son that you can buy.  Hearing this the king said, “Go buy me a son.” The wise men went around the kingdom, but no man was willing to sell their son. How can our king ask us to part with a son, they wondered. Who would do such a thing?

After a long search, the wise men found a poor priest willing to sell his son for a 100 cows His name was Ajigarta. He said, “I have three sons. I will not sell my eldest son because he is very dear to me, and I cannot sell the youngest because he is dear to his mother.  I will sell my middle son, Sunahshepa, because I have no choice. I am very poor and I need to feed my family.”

Thus Sunahshepa became the son of the king and was brought to the palace on a golden palanquin. He was quite excited until, after being fed and clothed and given gifts meant for princes, he was taken and tied to a sacrificial post. “You, Sunahshepa, are to be sacrificed to Varuna so that your father, the king, is free of debt,” said the wise men. Realizing his hopeless situation, Sunahshepa began to cry.

The executioner was called to sacrifice the boy. “I will not sacrifice the boy, he is no criminal,” said the executioner. The butcher was called to sacrifice the boy. “I will not sacrifice the boy, he is no animal,” said the butcher. The priests were told to sacrifice the boy. “We will not sacrifice the boy. That is not part of our responsibilities,” said the priests. Suddenly a voice rang across the sacrificial hall, “I will. I will. For 100 more cows.” It was Ajigarta, Sunahshepa’s father!

Everybody was aghast and looked at the father, and said, “When you sold your son, your reason was poverty. What is your reason now?” “Why should I feel ashamed,” said Ajigarta, “When the king is not ashamed to sacrifice one of his subjects to save his son.”

Watching his father move towards the chopping block, axe in hand, Sunahshepa realized he had no one he could turn to, neither father nor king. In despair, he raised his head and sang prayers, begging for divine intervention. The scriptures say, Varuna was moved by the prayers: he saved the boy, cured the king and all ended well. But did it actually?

There are many Sunahshepas in the corporate world – victims of greed, stripped of livelihood because someone wants to protect favourites, someone wants reduction in head count and no one wants reduction in salary. Sunahshepas are created when leaders refuse to make sacrifices.