Narendra Modi and Wharton: Whose loss is it really?

Cancellation of Gujarat chief minister's key note address at the US' Wharton University may be more of a loss for the latter.

Why ban Modi from speaking at Wharton altogether? If you do not agree with him, there's no harm in hearing him out. Shouldn't a renowned Ivy League at least respect freedom of speech and engage his critics by allowing astructureddebate around the complex web of economics and politics on Indian economy? After all, aren't free speech and reasoned debate the very basic principles of any B-school?


Modi is the leader of India's fastest growing state, which not only boasts of large PPP investments but has also attracted massive private investment. AFP

Manish Sabharwal, a Wharton alumnus believes that by dis-invitingModi, Wharton has not only dishounoured its promise in a difficultsituationbut has failed to teach its student the important lesson of public policy and 'complexities of politics while deciphering corporate strategy. In a column in the Economic Times, Sabharwalcritiquesthe University of not upholding its stated purpose of providing a neutral platform to encourage cross-pollination of ideas.

"The genius of Wharton is exposing you to people who do not think like you, look like you, or agree with you. And that is why it changed the size and quality of my thoughts. Whether you agree with Narendra Modi or not, you should hear him," he argues.

Bydefinition the Wharton India Economic Forum is one of the "largest and most prestigious India-focused business conferences and provides a platform for thought leaders to discuss the opportunities present to India and the challenges that need to be addressed."

In this context, Modi is the leader of India's fastest growing state, which not only boasts of large PPP investments but has also attracted massive private investment at a time when India is starved of investment creation. Gujarat's private-spending led growth even has several lessons for other developing nations.

"Gujarat inherited low levels of social indicators (at independence) and it is the change in these indicators where Gujarat shows impressive progress. The literacy rate has risen from 22 percent in 1951 to 69 percent in 2001 and 79 percent in 2011. The infant mortality rate per thousand has fallen from 144 in 1971 to 60 in 2001 and 41 in 2011," economists Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya of Columbia University noted in their new book India's Tryst With Destiny: Debunking Myths that Undermine Progress and Addressing New Challenges.

Arvind Panagariya, a Rajasthani-origin professor at Columbia University, goes on to say that Gujrat has done exceptionally well when it comes to education. "Gujarat added 10 percentage points to the literacy rate during 2001-11, more than any other comparator state. Indeed, once we take into account the low literacy level of Gujarat at Independence, its progress looks more impressive than that of even Kerala."

Hence, if a forum on India's economy has no room to even hear out what Modi has to say on development ( not politics), whose loss is it really?

Wharton could have learned a lesson from Modi's speech at Sri Ram College in Delhi, where despite protests he delivered an excellent speech on the future of India, about jobs and opportunities rather than vote-bank politics and handouts. But sadly, it chose to ignore it just as it has ignored India's reality.

As Sabharwal rightly says, "The rest of the world expects the US to set the standards for tolerance and openness. Obviously, the student organisers of the event have learnt the invaluable lesson that we don't live in an economy but a society."

Updated Date: Dec 20, 2014 16:25 PM

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