Modi-Wharton war: losses on both sides

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“We are happy to announce that Shri Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat will be addressing the conference and talking about the Gujarat growth model and its significance to the country!”

Till the time, this article draft hit the publishing button; the above lines stole the light from everything else on the Wharton India Economic Forum’s Facebook page posted in the last week of February 2013. Within days of landing, these harmless lines have torn two of the largest democracies into different think tanks: Modi supporters for one, Modi haters the other – and a huge bunch who think the post is nothing but some welcome publicity for the PM candidate.

The Wharton India Economic Forum (WIEF) established in 1996 at The Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania) is a student-run business forum in the United States and focuses on India. It conducts annual lectures, wherein prominent Indians are invited to deliver speeches on various subjects. This particular event, titled “Changing Seas, steering for growth” is being held on March 23 at the Penn Museum, Philadelphia. Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission of India, Milind Deora, the minister of State, Communications & IT and Shipping, Government of India, Atul Nishar, Founder of Hexaware Technologies, are also slated to speak at the event. Like was in the case of Mr Modi, Mr Ahluwalia will also be speaking via videoconferencing.

So how did the anti-Modi movement begin, especially since it was Wharton which had invited Modi

Apparently, it all started when three Indian-American professors from the University of Pennsylvania came to know about Modi speaking at the event. They initially started the protest with a simple appeal which finally garnered over 250 signatures till the cancellation of Modi’s speech came by. The three professors, Toorjo Ghosh, Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Ania Loomba, the Catherine Bryson Professor of English and Suvir Kaul, the AM Rosenthal Professor of English are known to have got on the job as soon as they came to know about the invitation and impressed upon Wharton authorities to cancel the invite.

Their petition read, “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.”

Sources says that Wharton officials have, since the petition by the faculty and now cancellation of the invite, been caught in a fix because while their students invited Modi, their faculty uninvited him. The Wharton School is trying to distance itself and project the entire fracas as having originated from the UPenn camp and not Wharton. The school’s officials are also trying to make it clear that none of the signatories of the petition were Wharton (non-Indian) faculty. Wharton is hoping that the incident will not come in way of Wharton’s India programmes.

All this finally led to…

The Adani group, which was sponsoring the Forum to withdraw within minutes of the invitation getting cancelled. It led former Union Minister of Power, Suresh Prabhu to cancel his own visit, since he was also invited to deliver a lecture at the same Forum. Mr Prabhu told PaGaLGuY, “Mr Modi is the chief minister of a state. If they refuse him, it is an issue that is to be looked at seriously. I will not want to speak at the same event.”

The Shiv Sena party also expressed shock over the cancellation. Its spokesperson Mr Harshal Pradhan said that the anger is not about Modi alone. “An Indian has been denied the opportunity to speak after being invited and that is an insult to the entire country. “

Who lost out?

It remains a fact that Modi is still not convicted for any crime. According to Aakar Patel, writer, columnist and an expert on Gujarat, he is being prosecuted but not charge-sheeted or convicted, so that should not have been the reason for not allowing him to speak. “They shouldnt have banned him from speaking. Its a loss to those who wanted to hear him.”

True, besides the Wharton event would have had him on video conferencing, how dangerous could that have been, if one really gets into nitty-gritties. Besides, it was also just a small students body that had organised this event, not really an official one organised by the school itself.

So will this entire fracas affect the maybe future Prime Minister of the country, to which Mr Patel had an interesting answer. “Dont think so. He revels in this sort of thing.”

So if there is anyone that truly lost out, it would be students at the Forum. Those denied a chance to listen to Modi who – if you cut out the anti-Congress and anti-Gandhi family harangue, is quite an interesting orator, known to seduce his audiences with his Gujarat success story. Just the other day, even while group of students protested outside Sri Ram College of Commerce, Delhi, inside the college in the auditorium, Modi had got the young audience rapt in attention with his one-liners and funny anecdotes.

As much as Modi’s hate stories have spread afar, so also have his cohorts. Businesses are known to flourish in Gujarat as red-tapism in government procedures and babudom has been brought to a near complete halt. Modi is earning praises for being an efficient manager, even while earing brickbats for his alleged communal leanings.

Marathi stationery traders in Maharashtra for instance, are in total praise of this Gujarati. They claim that a huge chunk of Maharashtras small time stationers have taken bag-baggage and settled in Gujarat in the last couple of years since the business environment there is less corrupt and more condusive to good business growth. “And they are also raking in much more moolah than we are here,” said a stationer based in Dombivali, Maharashtra.

Those who have also lost out are the student organisers who had arranged to get Modi to speak at the event. Having cut a sorry figure, these organisers issued an apology. “We as a team would like to apologise for being a catalyst may have put Mr Modi and the Wharton School administration in a difficult position.”

And guess who gained from it all? Activist Arvind Kejriwal. Media has been abuzz with the news that he is going to replace Modi at the forum.

And a quick mention of Modi’s PR team which needs to get its act together if their boss is being slated to be the PM candidate for his party. Protests and a cancelled invitation is hardly the way to go.

Another quick mention is that no Indian b-school director or official (at least the ones this correspondent called) wanted to share an opinion on this subject. Wonder why. Does anyone know?