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Narendra Modi has always been a divisive figure – be it in Indian politics or worldwide. Any other Chief Minister in India would have been a non-entity globally – but what makes Narendra Modi different is the fact that he has been the longest serving Chief Minister for Gujrat – which has seen some remarkable development during his tenure. His record in good governance, by all accounts is extremely strong. Along with Nitish Kumar, Narendra Modi is hailed as the most effective Chief Ministers of the country.

Narendra Modi will always be tainted in the role of his administration during the Godhra riots of 2002. While it is difficult to sift through all the details, allegations and counter-allegations, the common consensus seems to be that the administration and police stood aside (if not fully encouraging the events) while goondas (hooligans), political workers of the right wing VHP and BJP and others took to the streets in destroying property, businesses and lives of muslims in Ahmedabad and other cities of Gujarat. In the end, about a 1000 Muslims ( and about 250 Hindus) were killed. All while, allegedly, while the administration did nothing to protect the minority Muslims.

Repercussions followed.For the longest time, Modi was a pariah in Indian political circles. He was banned entry into the United States ( a ban which still continues). And the world looked at Gujarat as a well governed state – albeit with a chief minister who uncannily resembled Adolf Hitler’s tendencies – efficiency, unquestioning national loyalty and suppression of whoever the boogeyman of the day.

A lot of water has flown under the bridge since 2002. India itself as a country has changed. According to an Economist survey of Indian muslims, most are happy to be there. They aren’t concerned about Hindu-Muslim relationships (which they classify as very cordial). And like a billion Indians, they are preoccupied with improving their lot, educating their children and making a better life for themselves.

Does this absolve Modi for atleast his complicity about what happened in Gujarat. Opinions tend to be very polarized on this topic – but in the opinions of this blogger – the answer is no. There is absolutely no justification when innocent people die – be they Hindu or Muslim – and for the government administration standing around letting it happen in a democratic society.

Which brings me to the current issue – Recently, Modi was recently invited to be the speaker in the annual Wharton India Economic Forum. Apparently, after furious opposition from 3 Wharton professors of Indian origin – Toorjo Ghosh, Ania Loomba and Suvir Kaul, his invite was rescinded. It had immediate repercussions – Gautam Adani canceled his sponsorship for the event.

I have a fundamental issue with thwarting of competing opinions in one of the last forums where they seem to be enshrined – our Universities and hence this post. I present a few points as to why I think the troika of Indian professors and others were fundamentally wrong.

1. Freedom of expression: It is not selective or unilateral. Freedom of expression implies giving space for those one doesn’t agree with – indeed, even abhor – to have their say. I am proud of my alma-mater, Columbia University in having the intellectual strength and conviction in inviting Mahmoud Ahmedinajad, the president of Iran, to speak. So I fundamentally disagree with the premise that the “outrage” of a few professors impact the decision of a university of the stature of UPenn.

2. The latitude of business professors: I find this aspect particularly intriguing. A trio of Indian Business professors, the sort of people who have presumably spent their life studying different aspects of business best practices and efficiency, should oppose the one chief minister of India who, broadly considered a paragon of commercial governance. Gujarat has indeed done very well – one could argue, because of the overwhelming entrepreneurial nature of its people – but also because the government provided strong institutions, a pro-growth set of laws etc. The Singur controversy is an exemplifying idea of how Gujarat benefited due to ineptness that is endemic in the rest of the country. In conclusion, I find it a little disingenuous that some business school professors think it is wont for them to decide that the Godhra riots supersede the achievements that Gujarat has had under Modi – and the living standards that have consequently gone up. ( To be clear, I am not making a case either way – but clearly, one was made by Wharton – and to me, it reeks of a certain kind of intellectual dishonesty and arrogance). As a vernacular daily in India put it best – “Dhanda karna hai to Gujarat aaoge. Aur jinse Gujarat banaya use ban karoge”. – If you have to do business in India, you will come to Gujarat. But ban the same man who was responsible for making the state what it is.

Edit: Apparently, Toorjo Ghosh isn’t a business school professor. 

3. The larger strategic thought: There are legitimate concerns against Modi’s record. His administration’s record during the ’93 riots is far from perfect. And I certainly don’t want to discount the hundreds of innocent lives that could have been saved had the government acted in the way that it was obligated to – and didn’t. Not to draw moral equivalence – but how many times have I heard “collateral damage” being justified as a means to an end in America’s wars. How many Sikhs were killed in Delhi in 1984 Sikh riots in Delhi. And a lot of those people responsible for the riots were, till very recently or are still involved with the Congress party. So would you, the BusinessSchoolEnlightenedTroika, have objections if someone from that party that was centrally or peripherally involved, was invited to Wharton. I think not. Political predispositions trumped pure business sense. Modi would have been invaluable to Wharton students and others with his insights of how to effectively run and execute business and governance in one of the world’s fastest growing (and tricky) regions like India.

In conclusion, Modi was not the ultimate loser. Wharton was. Modi is still the Chief Minister of Gujarat with a fair shot of being the Prime Minister of the country – if his party wins (which doesn’t seem unlikely given the scale of Congress’ dysfunction at all levels).

And Wharton may just lose a lot of endowments for the Ambanis going forward. Like the sponsorship loss from the Adanis.

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