Narendra Modi, 62, has been the chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat for almost 12 years, and will almost certainly run for prime minister in next year's general elections.
It was an incident of no small consequence, then, when Modi's invitation to deliver, via videoconference, the keynote address at the University of Pennsylvania's annual Wharton India Economic Forum was abruptly rescinded earlier this week, after Indian-American academics circulated a petition criticizing his human-rights record.
And therein lies a tale of two extremes. Gujarat under Modi has an impressive record of economic growth, infrastructure development and delivery of public goods such as primary education. It is also India's most popular industrial and investment destination, as a result of proactive initiatives such as Modi's Vibrant Gujarat, an annual summit for investors. Modi has become a youth icon, standing out recently in Indian political life for emphasizing growth and good governance over the politics of identity and welfarism.
A charismatic speaker, Modi now draws crowds beyond his usual base supporters in his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, whose politics lean toward overt or covert Hindu majoritarianism and other expedient positions. He is admired by large numbers among India's middle class and its youth, who see him as a decisive strongman in a climate of democratic dithering and conspicuous corruption. And he is praised by captains of industry, who appreciate Modi's unambiguously pro-business slant in a country where politicians are wary of aligning themselves with industry.
At a recent speech at a college in New Delhi, Modi was applauded by students when he said: "The 21st century belongs to us. We just need to rebrand our country". That message both soothes and inspires Indians, who no longer want to be seen as a people marked by poverty, underdevelopment, fatalism and dependence.
Except that it isn't just Gujarat, or India, that Modi has been trying to rebrand, but himself. Like Lady Macbeth, he has a "damned spot" on his hands -- one that he can never erase, only evade.
The blemish is the horrific religious strife that occurred in his state in February and March of 2002. Hundreds were killed and property worth millions of rupees was destroyed -- the worst advertisement possible for business. Modi was widely held responsible for failing to stanch the brutal violence visited on the state's Muslim population -- a perception he stoked by plotting a return to power in state elections later that year with a campaign marked by crude remarks against Muslims that bordered on hate speech.
Modi soon realized he had painted himself into a corner. Over the next decade, he worked relentlessly to reinvent himself as a statesman focused not on "Hindus" and "Muslims" but on "governance" and "development" (he used that last word 20 times in a recent speech). He has been reprimanded by India's courts for his role in the 2002 violence and the obstruction of justice that followed, but has never yet been actually found guilty of criminal conspiracy or negligence. He hasn't been allowed to shake off the infamy of 2002, though, by India's many committed human-rights groups and by journalists, academics and political commentators.
And this was why Modi was made the subject of a petition protesting his invitation to deliver the speech at the Wharton forum, an annual event in its 18th year dedicated to discussing "India's evolution from an emerging nation to a prominent global economic power, and the key social, political and financial challenges which still stand in its way".
Written by three Indian-Americans at the University of Pennsylvania and signed by more than 100 other people, the petition said:
We are outraged to learn that the Wharton India Economic Forum has invited Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, to be a keynote speaker at its 17th Economic Forum on March 23, 2013.
This is the same politician who was refused a diplomatic visa by the United States State Department on March 18, 2005 on the ground that he, as Chief Minister, did nothing to prevent a series of orchestrated riots that targeted Muslims in Gujarat. The most conservative estimates are that over a thousand people, mostly Muslims, died in those riots. Thousands more were forced to leave their homes and businesses. . .
It is incomprehensible to us that this is the man who the Wharton India Economic Forum wishes to celebrate as an exemplar of economic and social development....
Modi still does not have a US visa to enter the US, but Wharton plans to present him on Skype to the audience. Recently there have been efforts to whitewash Modi’s grim record and to grant him respectability. Wharton’s invitation lends itself to doing just that....
We urge the Wharton India Economic Forum to revoke their invitation to Narendra Modi. If it does not do not do so, we pledge to protest his presence -- virtual as it will be, given that he remains ineligible for a US visa—in a variety of ways, including at the meeting of the Forum.
The vehemence of this denunciation, the ambiguity of that final phrase "a variety of ways" and the fact that the petitioners were also from the university community led the forum to withdraw the invitation to Modi. The organizing committee explained:
Our team felt that the potential polarizing reactions from subsegments of the alumni base, student body and our supporters might put Mr. Modi in a compromising position, which we would like to avoid at all costs, especially in the spirit of our conference’s purpose.
Since this kerfuffle, many searching questions were asked both of the forum's student-organizers and of the petitioners. The organizers were accused of not standing their ground, and of evading the central questions posed by their challengers. The Wharton alumnus Manish Sabharwal wrote in "B-School basics: Why Wharton is wrong in disinviting Narendra Modi":
There is an honour in small things like making and keeping promises. But there is particular honour in keeping promises in difficult situations. Once an invite is made and accepted — and nothing changed for the individual between invitation and acceptance — it is better to keep your word. The official conference statement — "as a responsible student body, we must consider polarising reactions" — is unacceptable....
I obviously absorbed a key Wharton lesson that dissent is not disloyalty. 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. But, hopefully, the more enduring lessons for everybody are about listening and keeping promises.
The protestors were accused of demonizing a man who hasn't been found guilty in a court of law, and of obstructing his right to free speech as well as the right of an audience to hear his views on Indian business. Further, their arguments seemed not only to link Modi's successes with his human-rights record (a legitimate tactic), but also to endorse a certain view of business and "economic organization" that may not be shared by the Wharton School of Business. Aseem Shukla, an associate professor of surgery at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, seized on this aspect in a piece criticizing the protests:
But what gives away, perhaps, the real motivation of increasingly vociferous anti-Modi attacks is the manifest whiff of ideology in the petitioners' pen:
"Our role as scholars and students -- and indeed as would-be entrepreneurs and business managers -- must be to develop conscientious and efficacious modes of economic organisation, not to piggy-back onto the inhuman policies of politicians who not only lack a commitment to human rights and to ideals of social justice, but whose political success is based on the suppression of substantial sections of their own citizens"....
This pledge to protest in a "variety of ways' is carefully chosen syntax -- not without precedent at Wharton -- and likely what spooked the conference organisers. Just over a year ago, Penn students supporting the Occupy Wall Street movement forced House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to cancel a Wharton speech with threats to disturb his speech after storming the Wharton campus and forcing a lockdown of classes.
But the Wharton professor of English Ania Loomba, one of the main forces behind the petition, suggested that the invitation to Modi was not as disinterested and detached as it was made out to be by the organizers. She pointed out that the event was supported by corporate sponsors, and the invitation was a way of insidiously overturning the negative perception of Modi in the U.S.:
We should also note that the Adani Group was a platinum sponsor of the event -- they have since refused their sponsorship after the student-organizers of the Forum rescinded their invitation to Mr. Modi. Gautam Adani, chairman of Adani Group, is a well-known Modi supporter, and his pulling out is a reminder that his sponsorship was part of an attempt to re-launch Mr. Modi in the U.S.
Mr. Modi’s proposed plenary address fit very much with his sanitizing campaign. He was due to speak on his state’s economic record, and there was no forum for questioning his human rights record.
One might grant this, and yet see that Ron Somers, the chairman of the U.S.-India Business Council and a delegate at the forum WIEF, made a valid point when he criticized the cancellation:
The Wharton Forum would have given the students a chance to ask the Gujarat Chief Minister hard questions...
The fact this was cancelled by Wharton is a missed opportunity, and condescends the students... why should Wharton Faculty or the Wharton Administration assume that Wharton students would have given the Chief Minister a free pass?
I agree. Modi clearly has a lot to answer for, and though he was silent in this instance, in the past he has himself shrewdly played the victim card when the chance has presented itself. But he is more complex than he is made out to be by both his detractors and his supporters. The Indian journalist Shoma Chaudhury described him as "a complex cocktail of high intelligence, high ambition, high capacities, high efficiencies, high demagoguery, high vengefulness and high megalomania".
Democratic politics often produce polarizing figures, as Americans well know. But when citizens and human-rights groups want to ensure that politicians are held accountable to the rule of law, they also agree implicitly to abide by the rules of democratic legitimacy and the codes and courtesies of free speech. By trying to make Modi a political untouchable, his critics in universities produce the very climate of indoctrination and suffocation they often so bravely defy.
Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View.