It was wrong to disinvite Modi, writes Upenn professor (Part 2)


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Saswati Sarkar9 Mar 2013

 
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Wharton’s censorship won’t workWill the censorship imposed by disinviting Gujarat’s Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who was invited to be a keynote speaker at the India Economic Forum organised by Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, accomplish its intended goal?

It seems that the petitioners opposed the plenary speech of Modi at the Wharton India Economic Forum because they felt that his development model was flawed. If they were confident of their conviction, wouldn’t it have been prudent for them to vociferously support the plenary just so that the discerning students that a premier business school boasts of detect the inherent flaws. Even more, they could have requested the organisers an opportunity to expound on the flaws they have detected.

Can a concept be intellectually decimated unless it is understood? Isn’t a pre-requisite for academic or professional innovation a mastery of the state of the art in the respective field? Even beyond the ivory tower of academia, in the new medium of opinion propagation, social networks like Twitter, users not only ‘follow’ those who they are likely to agree with, but also those they would like to counter.

Taking a step further, I would in fact argue that this perplexing decision is more likely to facilitate the dissemination of ‘Modinomics’, the brand of development Modi espouses. To start with, many Americans or more generally Westerners, who would not have heard of Modi otherwise, have now been informed of his existence through the publicity that this rescission has attracted. I will now recount a personal experience – the process through which I arrived at my own conclusions regarding the politics of Modi – as to why that is likely to substantially enhance his support-base globally.

I grew up in a Communist bastion, the then Red State of West Bengal, where the Right-wing party Modi associates with has been and still is a non-entity. I was raised in a Left-leaning middle-class Bengali milieu, exposed to Westernised education early on, was trained as an engineer with peers who were blissfully oblivious to politics. I have subsequently been living as an empowered and independent woman, or so I would like to believe, surviving in a male-dominated profession, and imbibing several Western values while toggling between Hinduism and atheism in terms of religious persuasions.

It would, therefore, seem that I have been programmed both by nature and nurture to reject the so-called divisive, misogynistic, communal and regressive brand of politics that a dominant section of the Indian English language media routinely associates with Modi. Much as I relied on this media to keep me abreast of the news back home during my life abroad, it did not explain how a six-crore populace repeatedly handed Modi resounding electoral wins, which is unless we believe that an entire State in India represents the toxic values that we hear of. My curiosity been piqued, I delved deeper to resolve this confounding riddle.

My first observation was that it was extremely easy to find out information on Modi as he maintains easy-to-navigate and informative web portals that outline his Government’s achievements, agenda and his public addresses – he was, therefore, not resorting to the technique of obfuscation. So, I did not need to rely entirely on the scholarly articles of the political pundits who have made a career on writing about Modi.

It turned out that he articulated his Government’s advances on the issues that I could relate to: Women’s empowerment and safety, global warming, energy security and the import of renewable energy, economy and liberalisation. The agenda was uni_ed rather than com-partmentalised based on religious and casteist segregation. A discussion on my take on this agenda will constitute a digression and will likely not add any new information given the vigorous public-domain debates it has already been subjected to.

It suffices to summarise that I was convinced that Modi had a long-term vision and also the gift of communication. In particular, he could e_ortlessly reach out to diverse sets of audiences: His party loyalists, Gujarati audiences of his electoral meetings and crowds of aspirational young students and professionals from premier educational institutes. It was also remarkable that in the largely dynastic, privilege-driven and caste-based politics of India, Modi made his mark by proudly acknowledging his humble upbringing yet without utilising his backward-caste origin as a tool for political advancement.

This represented to me an assortment of the best of Western and Indian political values. I concluded my decision process by undertaking a month-long visit of Gujarat, travelling in all the major geographical divisions and interacting with a cross-section of the residents, encompassing drivers, hoteliers, fellow-passengers in public transport, government officers, scientists, techies and migrants (from other parts of India). The interactions revealed that Gujaratis have somehow imbibed Modi as an integral component of their psyche – most would tirelessly expound on their leader’s virtues, generously crediting him for the development all around while attributing the inconveniences such as corruption to the local administration.

I never witnessed this level of connection between a leader and his electorate despite my upbringing in a State that elected a Chief Minister for five consecutive times. That was how I concluded that Modi is a, or rather the, leader who ought to be charged with leading India to the new age.

Thus, in effect the organised campaign of calumny directed against Modi served as the first stepping stone towards assuring him of my vote of confidence. I am by no means suggesting that all who delve into Modi’s records would replicate my decision process or arrive at the same conclusions – my mother, who till date harbours Left-sympathies, remained largely sceptic after the same Gujarat trip. Yet, given my prior intellectual predilections, I hazard the guess that my ‘conversion’ will be more than a singularity.

Why am I writing this article?

As a proud Indian who has not only retained her emotional bonding with her country of origin, but also her passport, through a reasonably extended sojourn abroad, I am obviously saddened that a democratically elected office of my country has been extended an entirely avoidable discourtesy. But, I could have purged this sense of sadness through some vigorous expressions in some social networking fora I have recently taken fancy to.

So, that’s not what I hope to accomplish by writing this article. Neither it is to acknowledge how we failed to uphold some basic intellectual values, which I am equally saddened of as a proud academic. The appropriate forum for doing so would have been a gathering of Penn students. But, it is because I believe that the reputation of Upenn has been seriously compromised through this eminently forgettable saga.

Several speakers have retracted their participation and several sponsors have backed out. Several articles have been authored in Indian and American media, including in the Wall Street Journal, criticising our choices. Some Wharton alumni have publicly voiced their discontent through articles, likely several others silently disapprove. Social media has been particularly severe on us with topics such as Wharton, Wharton Economic India Forum trending for multiple days for the wrong reasons. The Facebook page of the conference has drawn strong ire. A large Indian American group has organised an address by Modi in solidarity. I am also coming across reports of signature campaigns among Indian Americans and organisation of protests against this slight.

However, the most stinging criticism that I came across has been from Ashutosh Poddar, a bright young student from Shri Ram College of Commerce, a premier college affiliated to Delhi University. He has been one of the hosts of an extremely well-received lecture that Modi delivered at his college. He assured on a national TV debate that the student union of which he is an office-bearer was allowed to conduct the economic conclave hosting Modi without undue external pressure despite protests over the choice of speakers. While disagreeing with our decision without being disagreeable, he cautioned against excessive “academic intolerance.”

As a faculty member proud of her association with Upenn, I would like to tell the confident and aspirational young population worldwide, which Ashutosh and his likes represent, that I regret that we could not put our students in a position to aver the same. And, I would have been happier if I could have proudly asserted to them that Upenn believes in exposing its students to a diverse set of viewpoints which may be challenged but not censored.

Towards this end, some of our sister Ivies like Columbia went to the extent of hosting controversial military dictators such as Colonel Gaddaffi and questionably elected leaders like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. I am saddened to observe that Upenn chose to forsake this tradition for someone who decisively won the mandate of his people fair and square.

Yet, all is not lost, because our faculty is not a monolith that we right now appear to be – we do have the freedom to hold and articulate contrary viewpoints even if they are not in consonance with the stands adopted by the university without fear of punitive action. So, I continue to hope that we will learn from our mistakes in this process and grow stronger.

(Concluded.)

Saswati Sarkar is a Professor in the Electrical and Systems Engineering Department at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. She has been teaching at Upenn since 2000.




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  • KESHAVA PRASAD HALEMANE

    Great analysis by Prof. Saswati Sarkar.

    The best measure of one’s intellectual caliber is in one’s decision making – the nature and quality of those decisions and the associated complexity in the corresponding decision making problem scenario.

    Professor Saswati Sarkar fits far better into the finer nuances of the kind of thinking/decision-making processes involved in business management and administration, of higher intellectual caliber, than any of those who were involved in breaking/unmaking their earlier decision regarding their invitation to Narendra Modi to WIEF.

  • Jeev

    Very poor and egomaniac writing. “I” is used at least 30/31 times! Big, big give away.

    Looks the author is more in advertising “herself” than on the topic. Or may be lack of skills in writing.

    But hey, writing exposes the innermost thinking of the person – so this exactly shows in this piece, too!

    Read Rajeev Srinivsan, another author who recently wrote on Wharton and Learn!

    • Param

      Wow Mr Jeev – what an objective criticism !!! You really nailed the flaws in the article , isn’t it ? Or, wait, as you yourself were saying, “writing exposes the innermost thinking of the person “. Isn’t it ?

      Pathetic. Such a nice case on of free speech and this troll see author promoting herself.

    • DoesItMatter

      This is not only about Modi, but about a journey of one intellectual from the Left-camp to Modi’s camp. Obviously she has to narrate her story, her thoughts and associations. Big deal. Why do you expect everybody to write and sound like Rajeev?
      It is such stories that move and change people, not by spitting venom at your opponents. Sometimes that is what Rajeev does.

    • Riya

      Losers are good at finding faults of others. And trust me,you are one of them. Congrats.

    • FE

      Was this rambling comment necessary? After reading such a wonderful article – what a let down.
      Sigh !!

    • AP Keshari

      Yaar Jeev, you seem to be adhering to a rather useless tactic of “If you can’t possibly fault the logic, point out typos/grammatical errors”. Prof Sarkar teaches Elctrical Engineering, and has published more papers than books you may have read. So take a chill pill.

    • AP Keshari

      Superb piece, Prof Sarkar! Thank you for reassuring us that sanity and fairness has not completely disappeared from UPenn. I liked the manner in which you provided a personal context, sharing your discoveries and findings as you delved into the work and agenda of Mr Modi.

      You are bang on when you say that Mr Narendra modi has “a long-term vision and also the gift of communication”. Let us not forget, as Ms Tavleen Singh pointed out in another column here, that Mr Modi is the first indian politician to discuss supposedly complex issues of governance and economics in his public speeches in Indian languages (Hindi or Gujarati)! This has never happened before. He has changed the quality of our political discourse, and may well change the course of our nation when he takes office as prime minister. Whether he will succeed is a subjective matter perhaps, but he certainly must get a shot at trying!

      Once again, thank you for sharing your perspectives.

    • Ramesh Rao

      Jeev, if you had studied journalism, or writing in general, you would have been illuminated about the use of the personal pronoun, “I” and how it can enhance the power of an essay. Alas, you seem to have little knowledge of modern journalism and writing. I, for one, found Prof. Sarkar’s essay nuanced, thoughtful, and elegant.

  • slc

    Thanks for putting things in proper perspective.

  • KESHAVA PRASAD HALEMANE

    Please note – (1) There is a whole lot of difference when a fellow faculty of the same school writes as compared to a news reporter or columnist or journalist writes; (2) One needs to focus on the contents more than the language and style; (3) Usage count of a specific letter/word/phrase need not necessarily reflect the contents, far less the intent behind the content.

  • http://twitter.com/gauranga10 Dr Amit Shukla

    Thanks mam. What a nice article you have written. Very few times I hear sane voices from Indian academician because even in IITs we find mostly lefty and hindu hater faculties.

  • VADIRAJ C S (@vschanna)

    Prof Sarkar, this article should be an eye opener for those who have pursued an agenda of calumny against Modi. The Indian pride, that you exhibit, and your sadness at the slight to Modi, is appreciated. Your personal acceptance of Modi to lead India based on your own experience, triggered by excessive negative campaign against Modi, confirms the futility of such exercise. Articles like this will help mitigate the damage caused to Wharton by dishonest left-loonies. The article reminds me of a sanskrit slogan, “Vidya Dadati Vinayam”, which is perfectly apt for u. Thanks for this frank, balanced & soul-searching article.

  • AP Keshari

    Superb piece, Prof Sarkar! Thank you for reassuring us that sanity and fairness has not completely disappeared from UPenn. I liked the manner in which you provided a personal context, sharing your discoveries and findings as you delved into the work and agenda of Mr Modi.

    You are bang on when you say that Mr Narendra modi has “a long-term vision and also the gift of communication”. Let us not forget, as Ms Tavleen Singh pointed out in another column here, that Mr Modi is the first indian politician to discuss supposedly complex issues of governance and economics in his public speeches in Indian languages (Hindi or Gujarati)! This has never happened before. He has changed the quality of our political discourse, and may well change the course of our nation when he takes office as prime minister. Whether he will succeed is a subjective matter perhaps, but he certainly must get a shot at trying!

    Once again, thank you for sharing your perspectives.

  • Khushi

    Very well thought out and well-written article.
    Congratulations.
    It resonates with me personally (and i am sure with many others) because Mr Modi has been vilified unnecessarily so often by the mainstream media. His achievements are pooh-pooh’ed and his flaws are magnified.
    Most rational Indians see this as greatly unfair to Mr Modi.

    Your reasons for writing the article are also sound.
    Thank you.
    Your efforts are much appreciated.

  • Bhanwar Singh Rathore

    I appreciate Prof. Saswati Sarkar for bringing out such an impartial and logical article on why Modi was dis-invited to Whartons.She honestly claims her upbringing in a left oriented environment and still she has come with a balanced account of Modi after taking much pains in undertaking long and rigorous journey across Gujrat,interviewing people from different walks of life and then only arriving at some opinion.Unlike others who are hell bent on maligning personal and public image of Modi in particular and in turn also giving bad name to India as a democratic nation.Bitter truth is some elements including media , politicians ,academicians, colleagues of his own party with inflated ambitions are badly involved in a deliberate negative propaganda to deny Modi a role he is destined to play in a diverse nation which is at the moment at cross roads.But ultimately fate of a democratic nation is to be decided by people and not by selective propagandists…..Modi is a ray of hope for new India…what he does in future and which way he takes his nation is to be seen by all us provided he gets the mandate for the purpose.Journey of Modi is yet to begin……….it is not an end of it….he is at face of tunnel.

  • Srilata Gangulee

    Penn faculty and staff protested against the invitation not because of Mr. Modi’s development model (though that model was as much invented by Mr. Modi as e-mail was invented by Vice-President Gore) but because of Mr. Modi’s questionable human rights records.

  • Ra.

    Thank you Professor Sarkar. You have nicely written what many of us feel and want to express. I feel that Sri. Modi is now under the media microscope to find faults/errors in his words, and actions. I am nauseated by the fact that non of the current Indian politicians are under such a severe scrutiny. Man Mohan Singh never bothered to contest a Lok Sabha election, yet he was appointed a PM, who was thought to be an economist, and overall an honest person. However, his almost 10 year term is a display of his incompetency as an administrator and will be etched in Indian history as THE most corrupt period in Independent India. When somebody say there are invisible hands in Indian Politics that pull the strings, I believe them. There are numerous signs that there could be an electronic sabotage of the Elections in 2014. Suspicion still exist about the 2008 elections.

  • Narayanan Komerath

    A brave article with deep ideas, but isn’t it like spreading pearls before (Pakistanis), when applied to reasoning with the Wharton Administration and her colleagues? These people have shown utter contempt both for the United States Constitution and for the voters and the justice system in India. How can they be expected to exercise any reason?

    The institution, its faculty and students will get what they deserve: a speech by, say, Martha Stewart or one of the top executives of Goldman-Sachs, or, if they are very lucky, former Dictator (CEO) Pervez Musharraf or present Prime Minister “Ten Percent” Zardari of Pakistan, coming fresh off the burning of all those Christian homes and killings of Shias and Ahmadiyas.

    Or.. maybe, RAHUL Gandy or his brother-in-law the businees/ethics superstar?

  • Aditi

    You should consider reading this study before talking about Modi’s great “advances” on important issues:

    http://www.usindiapolicy.org/documents/publications/USIPI-Publication-02-Gujarat-Web.pdf

  • A.V.Venkatraman

    India had been treated with contempt and indignity from 1947 ever since we got independance(?) thanks to the stupid foreign policy of congress (then Nehru) handed over to the Nehru dynasty. India has been a country without spine driven by selfish motives and appeasement of minorities. As mentioned in the article ,when Indians (even highly placed leaders like Mr. Modi) are not treated with respect in India no wonder other countries choose to I’ll treat, insult Indians . If India has to command respect in Internationally leaders like Modi (not BJP) with vision and clarity should take over the government. Today even insignificant Srilanka says India (PM) is worthless .