New Delhi: Confusion prevailed over who will deliver the keynote address at the Wharton India Economic Forum after the University cancelled its invitation to Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi citing fears of "polarising reactions". Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) convenor Arvind Kejriwal has been invited to address the students, though 'not as a keynote speaker'. The University said it has not made any decision on who will be Modi's replacement, but reports hinted that Kejriwal is likely to address the forum on March 23 via video-conferencing.
Meanwhile, opinions remained sharply divided over the Wharton snub to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader. While the BJP slammed US's "double standards", Wharton professors maintained that their stand against Modi is based on facts and human rights records in Gujarat.
"We should question the law on the basis of which the US has denied him visa. To go on perpetrating the point because the argument of which they have denied him visa is questionable. If the question of denying visa itself is on wrong argument, is it right for us to go on that presumption and go on building on it?," questioned BJP spokesperson Nirmala Sitharaman.
A group of Wharton's professors and students had written a letter to the forum saying they were outraged to learn that the forum has invited Modi as a keynote speaker. "This is the same politician who was refused a diplomatic visa by the United States State Department on March 18, 2005 on the ground that he, as Chief Minister, did nothing to prevent a series of orchestrated riots that targeted Muslims in Gujarat," the letter noted.
In its statement, the forum said the student body was extremely impressed with Modi's credentials, governance ideologies, and leadership, which was the primary reason for his invitation. "However, as a responsible student body within the University of Pennsylvania, we must consider the impact on multiple stakeholders in our ecosystem. Our team felt that the potential polarising reactions from sub-segments of the alumni base, student body, and our supporters, might put Modi in a compromising position, which we would like to avoid at all costs, especially in the spirit of our conference's purpose," it said.
"I don't believe he's being ostracised or prevented from expressing his view as he's been doing all through these 10 years since the human rights debacle in Gujarat. His processes are being guarded by the fact that all his opinions are being discussed and we are taking a critical eye to some of his records," said Toorjo Ghose, Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "I think the Human Rights Watch, which is an international body and a criminal investigative body, took out a record chronicling and documenting of all the atrocities that happened in Gujarat at his doorstep," the professor added.
Gujarat-based billionaire entrepreneur Gautam Adani followed Shiv Sena leader Suresh Prabhu's footsteps and cancelled his scheduled visit to the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania after the institute cancelled its invitation to Modi. Adani Group is the main sponsor of the Wharton India Economic Forum.
The forum said even as it stood by its decision to invite Modi "we believe that this course of action (of cancelling his address) would be the most appropriate in the light of reactions of the multiple stakeholders involved". "Therefore, we as a team, would like to apologise for being a catalyst which may have put Modi and the Wharton School administration in a difficult position," it said. The forum said it hoped to have Modi speak at a "more appropriate forum where he can interact with students without the distraction of this kind of attention".
It added it was in the last stages of finalising an additional keynote address that will be delivered by a very prominent Indian leader and it will be announced very soon. Since its inception in 1996, the meet has emerged as one of the largest and most prestigious India-focused business conferences that provides a platform for leaders to discuss the opportunities present in India and the challenges that need to be addressed.
Among other eminent invited guests to the conference include Milind Deora, the Union Minister of State for IT and Communications; actress Shabana Azmi, poet and scriptwriter Javed Akhtar. Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia is also expected to address the forum on March 23.
Earlier keynote speakers have included former president Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, Union Finance Minister P Chidambaram, BJP leader Varun Gandhi and industrialist Anil Ambani.
(With Additional Inputs From PTI)