Washington, March 3: The Wharton India Economic Forum’s decision to cancel a speech by Narendra Modi to the conference by video link in three weeks i s reminiscent of one of the most popular items of graffiti that used to be on the Berlin Wall, once a powerful symbol of the divisions between the East and the West.
It showed Erich Honecker, General Secretary of East Germany’s then ruling Socialist Unity Party, caught in a bear hug by Leonid Brezhnev, General Secretary the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Honecker is warmly kissing Brezhnev on his cheek, but what is in his mind is projected on the wall: “Oh God! Save me from this love.”
Like the red duo many decades ago, the student organizers of the Wharton India Economic Forum today made a bizarre announcement that they were disinviting the Gujarat chief minister because it was in Modi’s interest to cancel his speech.
“Our team felt that the potential polarizing 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,” a statement from the Forum’s “organizing team” mailed to the media said.
The implication was that if Modi spoke to the Forum via videoconference, not even being present at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia where the event will take place, it might compromise him.
That impression was reinforced when the organizing team asserted that they were “extremely impressed with Mr Modi’s credentials, governance ideologies and leadership which was the primary reason for his invitation”.
Going by the statement, the cancellation was puzzling because it reasoned that “our goal as a team is only to stimulate valuable dialogue on India's growth story and to act as a forum where students and audiences interact with influential leaders from across India.” The team insisted that “we stand by our decision to invite him”.
The real reason for the cancellation is, however, between the lines in the statement. “We believe that this course of action (disinviting Modi) would be the most appropriate in the light of the reactions of the multiple stakeholders involved.” There were references in the statement to the Ivy League Pennsylvania University Wharton School’s alumni, student body and other supporters.
There has been talk on the campus since Friday of a letter written by the faculty and a section of students to the organizers that someone who was refused a US visa should not be lionized. The Wharton India Economic Forum is organized by students, who appear to have been unable to stand up to that pressure despite their assertions in the statement that their original plan to invite Modi was, indeed, right.
The flip-flop on Modi has made the otherwise well regarded conference, now in its 17th year, controversial. In online exchanges during the weekend within the South Asian Journalists’ Association which groups more than 800 journalists across the North American media who are of South Asian origin and runs a mailing list that spans the world, Sree Sreenivasan wrote that the Wharton Forum Always has always been “a great gathering”. Sreenivasan is the chief digital officer of Columbia University in New York.
But yesterday John Laxmi, who manages the Association’s various e-mail lists responded: “It would be a good story idea to write about what has been accomplished by these ‘great gatherings’.”
“Back in the 1990s”, Laxmi wrote that people holding such conferences were “hopeful that those gathered at the event would listen, take back some ideas and implement them. Montek Singh Ahluwalia and his colleagues have been attending these events for the past two decades but the results have been pathetic, to be charitable. I hope journalists write about these gatherings, not merely describing who said what but to go back and delve into what the purpose of these gatherings are and whether those goals are being accomplished”.
Ahluwalia has agreed to be a keynote speaker this year as well. Wharton’s student organizers promised that in place of Modi, the “keynote will be delivered by a very prominent Indian leader” to be announced soon.
But as of now, the line-up of speakers will lay the organizers open to criticism that they are biased in favour of the ruling alliance in India ignoring the country’s political polarization ahead of a general election.