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

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.


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.

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this article are the author's personal opinions. Information, facts or opinions shared by the Author do not reflect the views of Niti Central and Niti Central is not responsible or liable for the same. The Author is responsible for accuracy, completeness, suitability and validity of any information in this article.


Saswati Sarkar

Saswati Sarkar  is a Guest Contributor at Niti Central.