'I agonise for these students that only desired to create a platform to discuss India's challenges and opportunities for growth. The students and the Wharton administration must learn the lessons of consequences even as they seek redemption that can be theirs with the right moves forward, argues Dr Aseem Shukla.
The Wharton India Economic Forum, a completely business student organised event, leverages the weighty Wharton imprimatur and has been a signature event in Philadelphia, the United States, for seventeen years, basking in the media spotlight.
This year, that spotlight is more a glare because of a profound and disturbing (mis)handling of an invitation to their chief guest, Narendra Modi.
These students showed savvy in inviting Modi, elected thrice as the chief minister of Gujarat.
Known as one of the most effective managers and leaders of a state, when other states in India as well as the central government are rocked by scandals, riddled with corruption, and rife with ineptitude, Modi has attracted the attention of people all over India, and business leaders around the world.
Then the students buckled under threats of disruption and dis-invited Modi. Political gamesmanship won over business savvy, and the losers are not just the students, but free speech, democratic ideals, and the leaders of Wharton and Penn.
With Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, also to speak, the Wharton students had prudently set up a balanced panel representing the two largest parties in power in India, with two varied views on business and economic development.
Javed Akhtar and Shabana Azmi presenting alongside Suresh Prabhu of the Shiv Sena, diametrically different ideologies would also get their play.
In short, the Wharton Forum chairs had succeeded in setting up a real, diverse, and potentially vibrant dialogue for the thousand odd guests expected to descend upon Philadelphia for the event later in the month.
Ah, but it was not to be. As expected, given the pariah status Modi enjoys among the Indian radical Lft academy, Wharton students were scolded by a couple of Indian-American Penn faculty for daring to host Modi via video.
What was unexpected was the capitulation in rescinding the invite within 24 hours of the signature campaign against Modi over the weekend.
As a faculty member at Penn and active in advocacy and global medicine work, I was approached by a forum organiser to speak at the forum and recommend speakers for a few panels at the event.
I found the students to be truly idealistic, sincere, and committed to the huge task of organising an event of this magnitude. They invited Modi because the Gujarat growth story is a model for B-school inquiry and because he represents a massive polity in India.
The Ambanis, Adanis, Tatas, Deepak Parekh -- all business titans in India, all participants in the Wharton forum this year or before -- have lauded Modi and his standard of governance. Modi and India Inc are synonymous -- this is no political statement -- and Modi was an appropriate panelist.
The 'strongly worded' petition that the media sourced as the reason WIEF rescinded its well publiclised invitation rests its case on the repetition of a Human Rights Watch report written mere months after the mayhem in Gujarat after the Godhra train massacre over eleven years ago.
That report and several cursory US State Department statements on Gujarat were thoroughly rebutted by the Indian Supreme Court's Special Investigation Team that absolved Modi completely -- the only comprehensive, impartial, and definitive report on the Gujarat riots.
Even as the European Union, the United Kingdom, and others scrub previous hesitations and meet with Modi, the hypocritical US visa revocation of Modi's diplomatic credentials present a usual handle to leverage opposition.
Most Americans know that the Modi alienation disregards India's fiercely independent Supreme Court, condescendingly ignores India's democratic elections, and foolishly enrages millions of Gujaratis whose state is the preferred destination for investment.
But what gives away, perhaps, the real motivation of increasingly vociferous anti-Modi attacks is the manifest whiff of ideology in the petitioners' pen:
'Our role as scholars and students -- and indeed as would-be entrepreneurs and business managers -- must be to develop conscientious and efficacious modes of economic organisation, not to piggy-back onto the inhuman policies of politicians who not only lack a commitment to human rights and to ideals of social justice, but whose political success is based on the suppression of substantial sections of their own citizens.'
So the organisers of the petition -- English professors, a social work teacher, and a few anthropologists at Penn -- got together just a dozen or so faculty members from the College of Liberal Studies, and then presume to lecture Wharton B-school students as to the economic model right for India!
A precious irony, laughable even, but I believe the forum organisers reacted to this line in the petition:
'We urge the Wharton India Economic Forum to revoke their invitation to Narendra Modi. If it does not do so, we pledge to protest his presence -- virtual as it will be, given that he remains ineligible for a US visa -- in a variety of ways, including at the meeting of the forum.'
This pledge to protest in a 'variety of ways' is carefully chosen syntax -- not without precedent at Wharton -- and likely what spooked the conference organisers. Just over a year ago, Penn students supporting the Occupy Wall Street movement forced House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to cancel a Wharton speech with threats to disturb his speech after storming the Wharton campus and forcing a lockdown of classes.
One of the Indian-American professors spearheading the Modi protest gained notoriety after being arrested during the Occupy protests, and with his leadership in the anti-Modi efforts at Penn, the Wharton student organisers may have blanched at visions of organised protests outside their venue.
I am not privy to the position of the Wharton Business School administration vis a vis polemics of free speech on a private school campus. Still one cannot but decry the extent to which many in the academy inform their academic work with personal grouses and biased conceptions of social justice, group morality, or ideological posturings.
As Stanley Fish argued in Save the World on Your Own Time, the stated goal of the academe to yes, actually teach, is too often superseded by the force-feeding of political ideology.
A few of my Indian-American liberal arts colleagues, apparently, seek to cow down students through rabble-rousing, name-calling, and outright threats. Demagoguery has replaced debate, and that is a shame.
The red sandstone rotunda capped by a terraced bronze roof standing above the University of Pennsylvania campus is the imposing home of the Wharton Business School -- fondly known to students and alum as the 'Death Star'. The B-school matriculates future titans of business, or Jedis, as it were, on their way from Walnut to Wall Street enjoying a rarefied reputation of excellence.
The Wharton organiser Jedis said initially that they would battle boldly and there was no question of acquiescing to the petition. That was before they did just that.
Adani pulled out after that, Prabhu is gone, and one wonders if future Ambani auditoriums -- Wharton's largest hall -- are endangered by this rejection of one of modern India's most popular leaders.
With the only question being how many cancellations are yet to come, I agonise for these students that only desired to create a platform to discuss India's challenges and opportunities for growth.
They shot themselves in the foot and the students and Wharton administration must learn the lessons of consequences even as they seek redemption that can be theirs with the right moves forward.
Aseem Shukla, MD, is an associate professor of surgery at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine and a co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation. The views presented herein are entirely his own.