If all publicity is good publicity, then the Wharton Business School must be delighted. For the saga of invitations, ‘dis-invitations’, voluntary withdrawals, speculated-upon invitations and unconfirmed confirmations have held us in thrall for the past few days.
On the face of it, it could be argued that an academic institution like Wharton has a right to determine who it wishes to invite to speak at a conference it organises. As it does in withdrawing an invitation, if it believes that it erred in issuing it in the first place. As a matter of principle, it can choose its guests, and decide not to invite anyone whose values might be seen as being repugnant to it.
However, in this case, the withdrawal of invitation seemed to be more an act of pragmatism coming out of fear than a principled one rooted in moral courage. The original issuers of the invitation, the students of the business school, do not seem to have had second thoughts, nor indeed the faculty at Wharton; the objections came from three professors at the University of Pennsylvania.
In an act reminiscent of the murky withdrawal of invitation to Salman Rushdie by the organisers of the Kolkata Literary Festival, the ‘dis-invitation’ to Narendra Modi was much more about protecting the brand equity of the institution by insulating it from a potential source of controversy.
This is transparently clear in the statement issued by the university, which attributes the action to a desire to avoid compromising Modi “at all costs” rather than any distaste it feels in associating with him. In that sense, the current action belongs to the realm of ‘market logic’, that expedient weighing of benefit and cost, rather than that of unflinching principle. Among the considerations that were competing for attention, avoidance of controversy trumped the openness to diverse points of view.
As many have argued, the format of the talk could have ensured that Modi be asked hard questions, giving an opportunity to his critics to challenge him on all subjects, including his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots.
The fact that Modi is a potential prime ministerial candidate is important, and not only from a pragmatic perspective. Whatever one might feel about him, the Gujarat chief minister is today a legitimate representative of the people, re-elected not once but twice, and one who has not been found guilty of any wrongdoing by the courts.
The belief that one can deny him legitimacy by withdrawing an invitation to speak at a conference is misconceived, even if that had indeed guided the university’s decision.
Even the position taken by the US with respect to Modi is increasingly untenable, and it is only a matter of time before it opts for a more pragmatic view, in line with Britain and the EU.
The idea that international opinion is a superior moral guardian, which is endowed with wisdom that the Indian electorate and judiciary do not possess, is a deeply contentious one.
To believe that the US — a country that has never shied away from supporting dictators and considers among its allies today, regimes that are repressive and retrograde — has the moral right to confer legitimacy on anyone is difficult to accept uncritically. The use of international opinion is a convenient instrument that is being applied in this case because there happens to be an alignment of belief about the individual involved.
The burden of those espousing tolerance is that they must display the same tolerance even when dealing with those they deem intolerant. Allowing someone a platform to speak does not mean that one agrees with the individual. The argument that platforms by themselves provide legitimacy, and therefore access to these should be regulated using an ideological filter, is dangerous because it leads to sharply polarised, closed arenas where one only gets exposed to arguments one already believes in. It also reveals an implicit disregard for the audience and its ability to process the content of the argument presented and arrive at its own conclusions.
And in the overall scheme of things, it is hardly as if Modi will not be heard from again just because Wharton has decided to withdraw its invitation to him.