Modi ignores Wharton snub, flits to a new US audience

New York: It’s not the first time Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi has encountered attrition overseas. So if he is pained to be dumped by the Wharton India Economic Forum, he is hiding it well. He’ll be speaking instead on Saturday via video to a group of Indians living in the US.

Modi is expected to fill two auditoriums in New Jersey and Chicago when he gives a live speech to the Indian diaspora organised by the US-based members of the Overseas Friends of BJP. The organisers haven’t specified what Modi will talk about in his address on 9 March, but the US media has speculated that Modi may choose the address to touch on the issue.

 Modi ignores Wharton snub, flits to a new US audience

Narendra Modi. Reuters

Modi has so far coolly ignored the Wharton decision, but he has been drawing surprisingly strong support even from the Congress Party.

“I disagree profusely with Mr Modi at every level, but I think it is far better to debate his record and views rather than to try and suppress his voice by disinviting him. Once they had invited him, they had a duty to hear his point of view,” Tharoor told NDTV.

On Monday, student organizers of the annual India economic conference hosted by Wharton Business School in the University of Pennsylvania suddenly retracted an invite for Modi to give the keynote address to the Wharton India Economic Forum via video on 23 March.

His speech was opposed by three Indian American professors from the University of Pennsylvania, who gathered over 200 signatures to stop the event. Ania Loomba, the Catherine Bryson Professor of English, Suvir Kaul, the AM Rosenthal Professor of English and Toorjo Ghosh, Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania mobilised the campaign against Modi.

“We cannot give platforms to people who have violated so many human rights while being in power,” Ania Loomba, a Penn English professor and one of the petitioners, told Time Magazine.

“It’s shocking that Indian students at Wharton feel that someone who is one of the most controversial figures in India should be invited to celebrate India’s ‘development’ and economic success,” added Loomba.

Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots has long been a concern for governments in the West. Still, as he grows into a national political figure, Western countries may rethink their refusal to talk with him in an official capacity. In October, Britain ended a 10-year diplomatic boycott of Modi when its high commissioner met with him for 50 minutes.

Of late several American business leaders, Congressmen and State Department officials have found themselves speaking admiringly — not gushingly, but with unambiguous approbation all the same — about Modi. The State Department has organized several delegations to Gujarat.

The same US State Department had concluded that Modi encouraged or at least countenanced the anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002 through instructions to police to stand down. In 2005, the US government refused to allow Modi a visa on these grounds.

It made Modi furious that the US was passing judgment on him. He even cranked up his state information department to print a 47-page booklet, titled, “US Refusal of Visa to Shri Narendra Modi: India Stands United.”

Congressman Joe Walsh has now been shooting letters to the State Department asking it not to block a visa for Modi. Walsh spoke at a Gujarat Day celebration in Illinois’ northwest suburban district of Bartlett where he said he would not smile until Modi is officially invited to the US. Walsh got a standing ovation from the 1,500-strong crowd for his comment.

Walsh labeled Modi as someone with “quite a successful track record” of fiscal responsibility, “kind of like a Tea Party free market guy in India, which I found very appealing.”

Much like Walsh, US business leaders also see Modi as a can-do leader who has made Gujarat a business-friendly economic powerhouse. Not surprisingly, the US-India Business Council described Wharton’s move as “unfortunate and disrespectful.”

“Since when is an American University against free speech?” asked Ron Somers, president of the powerful US-India Business Council.

“The Wharton Forum would have given the students a chance to ask the Gujarat Chief Minister hard questions.”

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Updated Date: Mar 07, 2013 07:35:48 IST