Days after Wharton India Economic Forum rescinded its invitation to Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi to deliver a key note address at its upcoming annual conference, the entire episode has blown up in its face. Organised by the students of The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, WIEF has come under severe criticism for caving before Mr Modi’s detractors and issuing him “the intellectual equivalent of an eviction notice”, as Washington, DC-based Indian scholar Sadanand Dhume put it. Mr Dhume was to be on one of the WIEF panels but cancelled his participation to protest against the “ritual humiliation” of Mr Modi. Apart from him, Shiv Sena leader Suresh Prabhu has also backed out and so have two major sponsors of the event, the Adani Group and Hexaware Technologies. Also, senior Congress leader Shashi Tharoor has spoken out against WIEF’s decision while US Congressman Eni Faleomavaega warned that by revoking the invite, Wharton had come “awfully close to violating the rights of others who have a different view”. These opinions were echoed by another keynote speaker, US India Business Council president Ron Somers, who termed the episode as “unfortunate” and “disrespectful”. Rightly so.
Meanwhile, as supporters of Mr Modi revel in the fallout, let there be no doubt that it is WIEF, Wharton, and indeed the University of Pennsylvania, that have emerged from the fracas looking seriously compromised. Revoking an unsolicited invitation reflects poorly on the organisers. Surely, they were aware of the criticism that exists against the Gujarat Chief Minister, and should have anticipated a response from his opponents. And if they chose to invite Mr Modi despite the so-called baggage he carries — ostensibly because the democratically elected leader of one of India’s best governed States deserves to be heard — then they should have stuck to their decision. By caving before his critics, the student organisers failed “to provide a neutral platform to encourage cross-pollination of ideas”, which was their stated aim. Also note that the opposition to Mr Modi’s Wharton address was led by Indian faculty members outside the business school who had no business bullying the student-organisers of WIEF, since the latter have traditionally decided upon the keynote speakers.
At the crux of the argument put forward by Mr Modi’s critics is the assumption that by inviting him to Wharton, the University of Pennsylvania would be endorsing his “ideas about economic development that are based on the systematic oppression of minority populations”. This is a wholly fallacious argument on two grounds. First, there is no evidence to suggest that Gujarat’s economic model is based on the oppression of minorities. The growth is also not premised either on the politics of minority appeasement or on the policies of handouts. Second, debate does not mean endorsement — just ask those at Columbia University who invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to speak on campus back in 2007. By refusing to even consider supposedly divergent views, the academic community at UPenn has only failed itself.