The bizarre cancellation of an invitation to speak to Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi has cast a long shadow over the prestigious Wharton India Economic Forum's March 23 conclave.
The abrupt cancellation Sunday of the invitation to Modi to speak via live videoconference at the annual student-run India-centric conference in Philadelphia came after a war of words between Modi supporters and detractors even as corporate America is making a beeline for his state.
Modi may have been denied a US visa for his alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, but foreign dignitaries lavished praise on the third term chief minister at the Vibrant Gujarat 2013 Summit in Gandhinagar in January.
Among them was Ron Somers, president of the US-India Business Council (USIBC), an advocacy group of 300 top American and a score Indian companies seeking stronger commercial relations with India.
Modi has "created a magnet for investment,"said Somers, who is among the other keynote speakers at the forum, hosted by the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, which has emerged as one of the largest and most prestigious India-focused business conferences since its inception in 1996.
Other speakers listed for this year's forum are planning commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia and Minister of State for IT & Communications Milind Deora
In explanation of its abrupt cancellation of the invitation to Modi, the organizers said: "Our team felt that the potential polarising reactions from sub-segments of the alumni base, student body, and our supporters, might put Mr Modi in a compromising position, which we would like to avoid at all costs, especially in the spirit of our conference's purpose."
The student body which runs the annual forum said it 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 stake holders in our ecosystem".
The surprise move Sunday came following a strongly-worded letter from a group of Wharton's professors and students saying they were outraged to learn that the forum had 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," it said.
"Modi still does not have a US visa to enter the US, but Wharton plans to present him on Skype to the audience. Recently there have been efforts to whitewash Modi's grim record and to grant him respectability. Wharton's invitation lends itself to doing just that," the letter added.