Inside story: why Wharton cancelled Modi's lecture

India sends most students to UPenn after China, and ignoring the protests against Modi's invitation could have also meant upsetting the US administration that continues to consider him a pariah; But the decision was far from easy.
Hindustan Times | By Charu Sudan Kasturi, New Delhi
UPDATED ON MAR 05, 2013 04:14 PM IST
University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) President Amy Gutmann knows both India, and the sense of persecution minorities can experience. Her father had fled Nazi Germany and brought his family to India before eventually settling in the US.

So when the Gutmann-led Ivy League university decided to ask its famed business school, Wharton, to pull the plug on Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s scheduled address to its students later this month following protests, many senior professors and administrators at the varsity weren’t surprised.

But the decision to politely say no to Modi was far from easy. A complex mix of political calculations, hard economics and the university’s future plans in India provided the subtext for hectic lobbying and intense debates among alumni, students and the university faculty, eventually leading to the decision to withdraw Modi’s name from the list of speakers at the Wharton India Economic Forum (WIEF) in Philadelphia on March 23, multiple interviews with key stakeholders reveal.

Though the WIEF is primarily organized by Wharton students, their selection of Modi was supported by the Adani Group, the principal sponsor of the event, and a conglomerate with massive business interests in Gujarat.

Gautam Adani, chairman of the Adani group, is seen as so close to Modi that when the businessman too announced his withdrawal from the WIEF on Monday, it triggered speculation on whether his decision was a sign of protest against the move to axe Modi’s participation – even though the Adani group insisted its chief had taken the decision over a week back.

Industrialist Anil Ambani, who recently described Modi as a “king of kings” at the biannual Vibrant Gujarat investment summit, is on the Board of Overseers at Wharton.

But when three Indian-origin professors – Toorjo Ghosh, Ania Loomba and Suvir Kaul – at UPenn wrote a strong letter to Wharton last Thursday, the university leadership felt it could not be ignored. The professors said they were “outraged” that Modi had been invited.

“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,” they wrote in the letter, that evolved into a petition signed by over 250 people.

Though Modi was to address the conclave only through a videoconference – to circumvent the visa dispute – agreeing to continue with Modi as a speaker once critics had pointed to the State Department position on the Gujarat CM, could have meant upsetting sections of the US administration.

India is also a critical market for the university. After China, India sends most international students to UPenn, at a time when the university – like most other major institutions in the US – are increasingly relying on foreign students.

“There’s always a reluctance -- rightly so – to be seen as getting involved in internal political spats of other countries, and it’s even more so with India, given how critical the country is for us,” an administrator at the university said, requesting anonymity.

So, when the matter reached Gutmann’s office, the university leadership stepped in to diffuse what it saw as a potentially explosive situation, the sources said.

“Make no mistake, the move to not have Modi was a result of UPenn, not Wharton,” a senior Wharton official said, pointing to the fact that not a single Wharton faculty member had signed the petition demanding that the Gujarat CM’s speech be scrapped.

Wharton also had a tough balancing task to perform, with its student body clearly in favour of calling Modi, and faculty members keen not to upset a man who could emerge a Prime Ministerial candidate for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

So on Sunday -- while announcing that Modi’s address had been cancelled -- the WIEF organizers tried walking a tightrope. The cancellation was aimed at saving UPenn and Modi from any embarrassment from protestors at the conclave venue, the WIEF statement said, adding however that it stood by its decision to invite Modi.

The organizers also held out an olive branch to Modi – stating that they remained impressed by the Gujarat growth story, and that they hoped to hold an interaction between the BJP strongman and Wharton students soon, without the “distraction” caused by the invitation they had just withdrawn.

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