Business conferences are corporate and economic gabfests that achieve nothing much more than reinforcing the minds of important people that they continue to remain important.
More often that not keynoters and panelists are a bunch of usual suspects who can be found at all such conferences. By the very nature of their frequent attendance at such conferences they have all acquired a certain expertise in recycling their core content. In their defense, they do frequently change their wardrobe. You also invariably find the tweed tribe at such events. I guess what I am saying is that business conferences of the kind the Wharton India Economic Forum (WIEF) is serve no real purpose. The vibe is upbeat. The food is okay. The dressing is boringly formal. And the substance is incidental.
As a cheap aside, let me mention that when I keyed in the abbreviation for the conference’s name Microsoft Word’s spellcheck corrected it three times from WIEF to WIFE. True story. I had to disable the spellcheck just to ensure that it did not meddle so much.
The 17th annual WIEF, scheduled for March 25, has been scarred by a rather embarrassing lapse in business and management judgment by the organizers. Although the conference is organized by Wharton’s India-focused students’ body, this year’s guest list has been upended by some 250 petitioners, many of whom are professors at the University of Pennsylvania’s English department. They considered it infra dig to invite Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi to be a keynote speaker. His invitation has been revoked by the conference organizers under pressure from these professors. The petitioners argue that Modi, who has been denied a visa by the U.S. State Department since 2005 because of his alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat riots in which over a 1000 people died, should not be given a platform by the school.
As a result of this revocation, the conference’s main sponsor, Gautam Adani and his Adani Group and a couple of others have also withdrawn from the event. Adani is one of India’s fastest rising industrial groups whose support for Modi is almost unqualified and unequivocal. Although Adani’s office has said his decision not to attend predates the Modi revocation, I don’t think anyone is buying that.
Sadanand Dhume, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, columnist and a regular at such events, has also withdrawn from it. Being a columnist for The Wall Street Journal’s website he has chosen to explain his decision in his column thus: “I’m withdrawing from the business school conference after the organizers’ failure to uphold its stated purpose: “to provide a neutral platform to encourage cross pollination of ideas” about India.”
You are unlikely to hear this elsewhere but this blog is not known to shy away from crassness as long as it is effective. In inviting Modi, WIEF stepped on its own dick in the first place and then in yielding to the pressure from the petitioners it stepped on its own dick again. The luminaries of the organizing committee surely knew about Modi’s enormous political baggage. Once invited, they should have had the courage of conviction to overrule the petitioners who do not even belong to the particular school. The whole raison d’être of all such forums is that a variety of views and positions is heard and debated. Until such time as Modi is tried by India’s courts, declared guilty of any measure of complicity in the 2002 conflagration and sentenced he ought to be treated as any other panelist or keynoter. Guilt by association and circumstance seems strong in Modi’s case but it is still guilt by association and circumstance.
Of course, among a large body of political opinion in India and elsewhere, Modi is considered politically radioactive, emitting ionizing bigotry whose half life is way longer than his natural life. Some of my reader friends, aware of my long years of reporting India’s politics, not to mention that Gujarat is my native, have asked me to offer my perspective on this controversy. It is not much other than saying what I have said for a long time now. There is no politician in India who thrives on the rejection of a certain strain of political opinion with as much relish and manifest success as Modi. He is an unapologetically partisan figure mostly unaffected by his detractors other than gleefully riding their antipathies to repeated political success.
I think it is appropriate to repeat a paragraph from a 2007 opinion piece I wrote for the IANS wire about the chief minister. It said, “It should be clear to anyone reasonably discerning that no amount of secular or liberal outrage will stop Modi in his tracks unless his own constituents turn against him. In fact, a stronger secular and liberal outrage will merely enhance his stature among his followers who see him as a figure who compensates for their own sense of emasculation.” Modi survives and flourishes because there is a significant and, by evidence, growing constituency that props him up.
As for the WIEF and its decision to cancel his speech, it is rather silly. But within the silliness inherent to such conferences, it is not particularly surprising that organizers are often susceptible to political pressure.
I have this imaginary scenario in mind. The time is early 2015. The venue is the South Block, the office of India’s prime minister in New Delhi.
An aide walks into Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s office and says in Gujarati, “સાહેબ, વ્હાર્ટન વાળા નો પત્ર આવ્યો છે. આપ સાહેબ ને આમંત્રિત કર્યા છે.” (Sir, there is a letter of invitation from Wharton).
Modi (with a smug smile): એ પત્ર નું વિમાન બનાવો અને બારી ની બહાર ઉડાડો. (Make a paper plane out of it and dart it out of the window).
And then they both laugh out loud.
I think Wharton will discover that politicians hold long grudges.