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297. A Cancelled Invitation – So what?

March 6, 2013

In the age of social media one has to realise that everything mainstream media carries as news and views does not carry the same weight that it used to before Twitter and Facebook ruled the day. Therefore, an invitation to speak cancelled by the organisers of an Indian Forum of  a leading B School of one of the famous universities in the US is not a big deal . No media outlet in the US worth its salt has even bothered to dwell on the issue beyond the basics.

Indian media is getting carried away by minor controversies and making mountains out of mole hill when it involves a few individuals. I have written in an earlier post about the episode because to me it has a three-fold significance as a student of reputation management and as an Indian in the US watching social developments in the current country of residence and tracking political developments in my home country. Two blogs caught my attention and I will quote from them to share a perspective.

The blog by Vir Sanghvi – I quote from there : (though Sanghvi does not support Wharton’s decision here are some key points)

 A group of students organised an Indian economic summit that was partly financed by the Adani Group, Modi’s great supporters and decided that it would be a good idea to hear Modi speak. When news of the invitation got out, (some) academics petitioned the university management not to offer Modi the legitimacy of a Wharton endorsement. Modi’s supporters, they said, had already gone around announcing that Modi had been invited to speak at Wharton. They were using the Wharton name to suggest that Modi now had international intellectual acceptability. Surely, said the protestors, Wharton did not want to be regarded as the university that conferred legitimacy on a man who had been denied a visa by the US government? Ultimately, the Wharton management sided with the protestors and asked the students to reconsider. Seen in those terms, the incident is not one about free speech. It is one of being wary about letting somebody use the Wharton name to advance their political careers. The protestors say that they have not curtailed Modi’s right to free speech. If he wanted to address the same students by video-conference on another occasion then this would be fine just as long as the event was not linked in any way to Wharton University.

The other is a blog by Anant Rangaswami – the original line “Wharton gets a bad name in Modi fiasco — unfairly” has now been changed.

Those who read only the headlines in the newspapers or on news TV channels would be under the mistaken notion that the whole flip-flop drama that first saw Narendra Modi being invited and subsequently uninvited involved the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

My view –

How does it matter? Will admissions drop? Will job placements reduce? Infact this is a lesson to organisers of such events to not mix sponsorship with speaking opportunities and to not invite controversial non-citizens without floating proper trial balloons. I don’t think there is any negative rub off on the Wharton brand name in  anyway. Those howling are Modi supporters and they are right in feeling the way they do. However, with an alumni base of the who’s who of global business something as trivial as this cannot tarnish the school’s reputation.

The University of Pennsylvania has had its share of controversy last year and was wise in taking a prudent decision in rescinding the invitation. After all Modi is not an elected national leader and the equivalent of a Governor from a US standpoint. Wharton is America’s first B School affiliated to a university and was set up even before my grandparents or Modi’s parents were born and has some standing and a rich heritage to protect.

Modi has the right to speak and to be heard but that right is limited to him as an individual. As the democratically elected CM of one of India’s 28 states his right to speak in his state as CM is definitely not being questioned and his right to speak anywhere in India as  a leader of his party is not being taken away.  But when it comes to speaking in the US Modi should have been dignified in saying – How can I talk to you when your country does not give me  a visa? That would have been a tactful response rather than accepting the back door entry of speaking to students and guests of a university situated in  land that refuses you a visa because via video conference.

Modi should first put his house in order and request his supporters from hurling abuses and filthy language hiding and cowardly doing so anonymously. How is what Wharton did different from someone keeping his or her timeline open to follow and then blocking the person when confronted with difficult questions. Read this article from a Philadelphia (the state where Wharton is based) based media outlet to get a fair point of view and see the filthy language used by Modi fans to target one of the petitioners.

I want to end by quoting from Sanghvi’s blog –
Obviously, this is a complex issue. It is not as simple as free speech vs censorship. The protestors are liberals and their concerns are with the misuse of the Wharton name.

Disclaimer 1 – I am not a Congress sympathiser but definitely a Modi baiter because of the three days in 2002 when he let ordinary men and women take law into their hands and murder innocent children, women and men. I believe it is an insult to even talk of him as a potential prime minister. It is another matter that the arithmetic with him at the helm will not favour his party. I believe Jaswant and Jaitley from the BJP are better suited to lead the country if the BJP led NDA comes to power. Sushma is another contender but the party ful of misogynists will not allow that because she has not worn the khaki shorts that is mandatory for someone from that organisation to aspire for high office.

Disclaimer 2 – I have great admiration for Anant Rangaswami

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