The specifics of the minor storm surrounding the Wharton India Economic Forum 2013 (WIEF2013) to be held March 22-23 are common knowledge. The organising committee first invited Chief Minister Narendra Modi to be the keynote speaker at the event and then a couple of days ago withdrew the invitation which Modi had graciously accepted. Predictably this led to much rejoicing among Modi’s detractors (they are legion) and much outrage among his ardent supporters.
Allow me to address one relatively minor matter first. As in all similar cases, someone or the other decides that this is a case of stifling of free speech. The speaker’s ‘right to free speech’ has been violated, goes the cry. Voltaire is immediately invoked and quoted as having said, “I disagree with what you have to say but I will defend with my life your right to say it.” Just for the record, Voltaire didn’t say that ever but that’s beside the point.
This is not a matter of free speech at all. By their action, the organisers of WIEF are not preventing Modi from speaking. They just don’t want him to speak at their venue. His ability to speak freely elsewhere is not compromised in any way. Freedom of speech means that the speaker is free to speak but it does not impose any obligation on anyone to listen. If WIEF people don’t want to hear what Modi has to say, they are well within their rights to not provide him a platform. So Modi’s supporters, well-meaning though they may be, should tone down their free-speech-violation outrage a bit.
Now to the more substantive matter of whether it is right to invite someone and then retract the invitation after it has been accepted. Under extraordinary circumstances one may be compelled to do so. It could be due to an honest mistake. For instance, you thought the speaker was a highly qualified doctor and therefore most suited to address your medical conference. But then you realise that he’s not a doctor of medicine at all but rather a doctor of philosophy. It’s embarrassing as all heck but not life threatening. You apologise to the invitee for your mistake and life goes on.
That’s not how it happened in this case. The WEIF2013 organisers – business school students at a prestigious highly-ranked US university – must have known everything there is to know about Modi, one of the most celebrated and prominent public figures in India. No new information about him could conceivably become available to them. They must have known that they would face opposition from those who hate Modi. So what happened?
The proverb ‘he who pays the piper, calls the tune’ can provide some clues. Universities rely to some extent on external funding – from benefactors outside the state or alumni. Times are hard and one cannot afford to antagonise those who help one pay the bills. Wharton management perhaps found it was politically (and financially) imprudent to host Modi given that he has been declared persona non grata by certain influential groups with deep pockets. Remember: The Government of India and its agents have deep pockets, not to mention foreign bank accounts.
What the organisers of the conference did in retracting their invitation is understandable. It must be that on weighing matters, they decided that is better to incur the wrath of one camp rather than the other. Understandable but that does not mean that it is not churlish, spineless and lacking the courage of conviction. Besides, it may be terribly myopic. More about that in a bit.
Some consider the WIEF’s action to be an insult to Modi and indeed to India itself. It is nothing of the sort. First, Modi is a big man. For 10 years he has been the target of an unrelenting witch hunt by the Union Government and its agents in the mainstream media, various NGOs with questionable objectives, and foreign Governments who would like to see India embroiled in domestic discord. Yet he has not only survived, he has prospered and helped the people of the State of Gujarat prosper. He cannot be insulted by something as trivial as the retraction of an invitation to speak at a conference, however prestigious the venue.
Second, it is not an insult to India for different reasons. Modi is not India. An insult to Modi – which it isn’t as I argue above – cannot be an insult to India. The WIEF is too inconsequential compared to India for it to be capable of insulting India. What is indeed an insult to Indians is that India is an impoverished (meaning ‘made poor’) country, and it has been made so by bad governance. Lest we forget, India has been misgoverned by the Nehru dynasty and the Congress for most of its post-British Raj existence. The rape of India, not just figuratively, has intensified in the last nine years.
One indicator of India’s impoverishment – and there are too many to list here – is the dismal education system. India’s education system has failed because of bad Government policy formulated for the most part by the Congress and the Nehru dynasty. Not one university in this land of 1.2 billion people is ranked in the top three or four hundred of the world’s universities. Thus tens of thousands of Indians have to go abroad at enormous cost for higher studies. That is why Wharton Business School (like many others) have an annual ‘India Economic Forum’ conference and no Indian university has an ‘US Economic Forum’.
The fact is that India suffers from an on-going insult from its Government and nothing that a bunch of misguided business school students can do ever match the injury that the Nehru dynasty has inflicted on India’s wellbeing.
The WIEF matter is inconsequential in the larger scheme of things but it is significant in what it signals. It signals that Modi’s opponents are shivering in their boots. Modi’s address last month at Shri Ram College of Commerce, New Delhi, scared the living daylights out of the Congress-led UPA and its fellow-travellers. They could well imagine how much more damage Modi would do to them in a talk that would only amplify his voice even more. Modi has to be stopped at every corner, on every street, and with all they can muster. He kicked the hornet’s nest at SRCC and they are buzzing with furious anger.
The Congress-led UPA wants Modi stopped not because he is bad for India but rather because he is bad for those who have misgoverned India for so many decades. Modi is good for India. If Modi continues on the trajectory that he is on, he will transform India from an impoverished country to one that is prosperous and powerful. That would mean that those who have profited from India’s misfortunes – namely, the corrupt domestic Governments and enemy foreign Governments – will be forced to abandon their fiefdom.
India has the potential to be as powerful as a nation of 1.2 billion is capable of being. To realise that potential what India needs is leadership. Modi has demonstrated that he is a man with vision, determination, intelligence and capable of superhuman effort. Every weapon they have fired against him has made him stronger. He is, to borrow a term from Taleb, “antifragile” – the stress is like exercise, building a more resilient body. When – not if, but when – he becomes India’s Prime Minister, India will finally be on its way to fulfilling its potential.
And in the end, this sordid event will be just a brief footnote. The students of the IEF at Wharton are myopic. They will be gone in a year or two. But for years to come Wharton will pay the price of having needlessly antagonised so many Indians, Indians who would be far, far richer than they are today and would have contributed to its success.