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Tathagata Bhattacharya
Tuesday , March 05, 2013 at 18 : 57

Why Wharton invited Modi, disinvited him and why many others withdrew


The controversy generated over the invite extended to Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi to address the India Economic Forum at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and the subsequent withdrawal of the same needs to be seen in a nuanced manner.

Why did Wharton invite Modi?

Narendra Modi has successfully portrayed his image to a section of the so-called upwardly mobile middle class Indians as one of a harbinger of growth and development. There is a body of statistical data which can challenge these claims (ranging from child malnutrition to health parameters) but the bottomline is that he has been able to cultivate an image of an able administrator - the iron man who does not tolerate corruption or any other roadblock on route to industrialisation, wide roads and attracting fat investments, thus creating more jobs for the young and bringing more prosperity to his people.

It is also true that the 'Emerging Indian superpower' dream is more of an obsession of those educated Indians who are more prone to likening human development (and by extension that of a country) to just devising a more efficient productive process. One can be sure that Wharton, the oldest business school in the world affiliated to an institute of higher earning, as much they may teach their students to be innovators and out-of-the-box thinkers, finally has to submit to the business basic of reading the fine print. And the print is always in the red and the black. But it is not just this convergence between Wharton's raison d'etre and a small section's megalomania that springs to mind when one actually puts on the thinking hat.

While it is more likely than not that the Indian students at Wharton see Modi as a messiah who will cure India of all her ills, the man who will turn this ancient landmass of holy smokescreen into a brow-beating superpower, what is infinitely more interesting is a February 2009 article in 'Forbes', headlined 'Billionaire Clusters' in which Duncan Greenberg writes, "Billionaires who derive their fortunes from finance make up one of the most highly educated sub-groups: More than 55% of them have graduate degrees. Nearly 90% of those with M.B.A.s obtained their master's degree from one of three Ivy League schools: Harvard, Columbia or U. Penn's Wharton School of Business."

What is interesting is not so much about the content of the article. The timing is of essence. The article appeared at a time when the 2008 economic meltdown was making its effect felt in the most profound way - American working class families were seeing their savings wiped out, their homes taken away, their jobs vanish. While the collapse of finance capital and losses of banks were being socialised by the average Americans, the alumni from Wharton and its likes continued to pocket astronomical salaries and bonuses.

Enterprises and institutes which believe in and stand for socialising losses and privatising profits usually tend to see pro-industry statesmen as safety nets in the investment workflow. Seen in this light, it is only natural that Wharton will roll out the red carpet for Modi.

But why was the invite cancelled?

Enter U. Penn and the matter got complicated. Three members of the varsity faculty were aghast at this invitation being extended by Wharton. They wrote a letter in protest and many research scholars, fellow academics from U. Penn. and other institutions, and other members of the American intelligentsia lent their signatures to the petition. It was addressed to the organisers of the India Economic Forum.

While pointing out that the US government has revoked Modi's tourist/business visa and refused to give him a diplomatic visa for "severe violations of religious freedom," the petition reportedly ridiculed the organisers at Wharton for trying to lend a helping hand to Modi in his image rebranding exercise by lending him credibility as an "exemplar of economic and social development".

All the three faculty members - Ania Loomba, Catherine Bryson Professor of English; Suvir Kaul, A M Rosenthal Professor of English and Toorjo Ghose, Assistant Professor at the School of Social Policy and Practice - are from humanities or social sciences. Possibly, since literature and social sciences have been relatively insulated from the onslaught of positivism or from the lack of empathy, emotions and an innate concern for human lives and dignity, they could not accept the fact that the very institution they were a part of, could extend a red carpet, albeit virtual, to a man who is widely held responsible for thousands of deaths in the 2002 Gujarat riots, a man who has been reprimanded by courts of India for failing to act to prevent the 2002 killings.

Now, organisers at Wharton possibly did not expect such a strong reaction. Some of them, I am sure, are of the opinion that people should look beyond 2002, forget if not forgive, and look at Modi's record of governance. But once the petition was launched, news of it spread like wildfire, specially in the US and in India. Wharton was suddenly in the news and not all reports, tweets and status messages applauded the move of the organisers.

An institution with the history and alumni of Wharton does not tolerate negative publicity. To the organisers, preservation of Wharton's aura (read political correctness) was more important than resurrecting Modi's image. So Namo (Narendra Modi in short, as his fans call him) was dropped as the keynote speaker at the India Economic Forum, Wharton, 2013.

Why is Suresh Prabhu not going?

Senior Shiv Sena leader Suresh Prabhu, who was supposed to speak at the meet, pulled out, terming dropping Modi as a national insult. He said "The university should be a place where divergent views are debated. Such a decision, that too by a varsity in the US, is unfathomable."

However, I think there is something more tangible and lucrative than national pride that prompted Prabhu to take this decision. Modi is known to be close to Raj Thackeray and MNS. I strongly feel this is Prabhu's attempt at building trust between Modi and the Sena before the 2014 general elections.

Why is not Gautam Adani taking part?

Gautam Adani, the chairman of the $8 billion Adani Group that has interests in power, coal mining and trading, gas and oil explorations, shipping, port handling etc, also announced that he will not be taking part. His office released the following statement soon after Wharton decided to withdraw the invitation to Modi: "Gautam S Adani, chairman, Adani Group, had conveyed his inability to join as a keynote speaker at the Wharton Economic Forum. This was communicated almost a fortnight ago as he has other pressing commitments."

One has to keep in mind that the Adani Group is the main sponsor of the Wharton conclave on India. But then, the Adani Group is headquartered in the Gujarat capital of Ahmedabad. His key businesses including power, oil and gas exploration and the Mundra and Hazira ports are all situated within the boundaries of the state. It just does not make business sense to get into the bad books of Modi.

Why did Sadanand Dhume pull out?

Writer and journalist Sadanand Dhume has written in his 'Wall Street Journal' blog that he is pulling out because of the "organizers' failure to uphold its stated purpose: 'to provide a neutral platform to encourage cross pollination of ideas' about India."

"No court has found Mr. Modi guilty of involvement in the violence and he denies wrongdoing, the fact that more than 1,000 people died on his watch, about four-fifths of them Muslim, can't simply be wished away," writes Dhume.

However, Dhume would do well to remember that a fellow minister of Modi's state cabinet has been convicted in the Gujarat riots case by a special court and sentenced to 28 years in jail for being the 'kingpin of the Naroda riots' in which 97 people were killed. The Narendra Modi government was, on February 8, 2012, pulled up by the Gujarat High Court for "inaction and negligence" on its part during the 2002 post-Godhra riots, a first for any state government in pre and post-Independence India. So the absence of direct evidence should not be necessarily construed as an evidence of absence.

Also Modi's closest aide and former Gujarat home minister Amit Shah is currently out on bail. He is a key suspect in the Sohrabuddin fake encounter killing case.

Dhume wrote a piece in 'Foreign Policy' some time back on Modi. It had lauded Modi for creating jobs, bringing in capital and ushering development. Dhume would do well to check the percentage of casual workers (upwards of 70 per cent) employed in Gujarat's industries and the appalling conditions they live in. He should also witness the horrific living conditions in the Dang, Sabarkantha and Banaskantha areas. He should crosscheck the statistics on farmers' suicides. He should also pay a visit to the Alang ship scrap yard and see how workers are exposed to extreme health hazards including radioactive exposure without minimum safety measures being in place. Indian media sources would prove infinitely more exhaustive and useful in understanding Gujarat's growth dynamics than international publications which tend to look at things on the surface, owing to the nature of their international readership.

Is Arvind Kejriwal Modi's replacement?

Arvind Kejriwal is and is not Modi's replacement. His single point tirade against corruption and price rise finds resonance cutting across party lines, religions and any other community affiliations. Everyone agrees with what he says he wants but not how he wants. Also the euphoria of the summer of 2011 is long over and Anna Hazare has distanced himself from Kejriwal. He is non-controversial and not the talking point that Modi is. He has already announced that he would go on fast from March 23 onwards. The India Economic Forum will be perfect. What better pad for the launch of Gandhian protest than a Wharton conference hall?


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More about Tathagata Bhattacharya

Tathagata Bhattacharya is Editor, Special Editions, at Network 18. Having worked for well over 10 years with leading national and international media organisations, he is as enthused by newsbreaks and analyses as he is by single malts, Jazz and military aviation. You may come across this man listening to John Coltrane or reading Yasar Kemal on some obscure Himalayan tract though work pressure reduces the statistical probability of such a chance encounter.