Wharton’s ‘market logic’

Photo: Ankit Agrawal

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.



  1. This article: 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 statement issued by the university, attributes the action to a desire to avoid compromising Modi “at all costs” rather than any distaste it feels in associating with him.

    This should be the criteria and the parameter for judging Modi.


    Why invite Shiv Sena leader Suresh Prabhu?



  2. Whilst the dis-invite to Modi certainly was an act of discourtesy and is deserving of censure,lets not forget a few points.

    1) This was going to be a keynote address and not an interactive debate. Keynote addresses are monologues. To have converted a keynote talk into an interactive debate, could have risked the possibility of Modi backing out, citing some vague reason. After all, Wharton certainly is no SRCC or a Google HangOut, where things can be suitably stage managed. The potential embarrassment of awkward and inconvenient questions, itself would have galvanised the creation of an excuse to back out.If past history is any record, Modi has declined or walked out of inconvenient interviews. So the argument that he may have agreed, is moot.

    2)There can be no argument that Modi has yet to be even charged for the genocide on 2002.But the Supreme Court has virtually chastised him for shielding the perpetrators. Also, the fact that several cases had to be moved out of Gujarat, denotes a discomfort that the SC felt about the delivery of justice in such a charged atmosphere.

    It is a curious argument that Wharton cannot retain the right to dis-invite a person, just because of the opprobrium which could be heaped on such a decision.Admittedly both the invite and the dis-invite,certainly do not have seem to be thought through. One wonders, given the current US view on Modi, whether the State Dept, if consulted, wouldn’t have gently nudged the school to drop the idea of inviting Modi.

    Lastly, the fact that Modi is a democratically elected leader is a valid one. However, one must not forget that we have ourselves chosen 150 odd members of the current parliament,charged of various crimes, to represent us.Should Modi not be censured for the acts of omission and commission from 2002 onwards ? Should the Congress not be censured for the 1984 carnage?. Just because we are chary of doing the morally correct thing, do we have the right or authority to demand the same appalling standards from Wharton who was ultimately just a host ?

  3. Hi Mr Santosh Desai, You are trying to show Modi as the true savour of India, Neh! He is a Hindutva fundamentalist, His hands and brain were already wet with blood and soul of people of Gujrat. He is just because two times elected CM, doesnot provide he is not guility. He already shed the poisionus to the people of Gujrat. Not two times hereafter he will be elected always until Gujratis ready to give up RSS agenda. He is primary one to be hanged for Gujrat Massacre. Our Political system collapse with social policies and symphthise by using these he is escapping continually. Please go and visit Gujrat are they affected peoples living in good condition, or out of fear.
    But sure one day Justice will be made. More Indians such as Mr Hamate Karkare, Mr Sanjeev Bhatt… will come to rescue our Nation, the day, the day will prove how much culprit he is…. I hope you kind of gentleman won’t write in favour of him anymore. Apology if I talk anything wrong.
    Hi Tehekla, You did a mistake by publishing this article.

    • I feel sad for people like you, howsoever you speak or cray foul you would not be able to debacle him. I too had opinions like you when I was a leftist, now, when I see the world out there, I feel Modi is lot better than Karat types and Owaisi types or Mulayam types.

  4. Wharton is not a political forum. It is an academic forum.It is shame on Wharton for disinvite and the US Govt’s hypocrisy on human rights.History will record US
    as the greatest human rights violator. It can not be hauled up now because of its supreme dominance as an economic and military power

  5. Some years ago, Kurt Waldheim, the president of Austria(he was also the general secretary of the United Nations), was to visit the US. Just before the visit his Nazi past (he was a Nazi SS Commandant) came to light, and the US government asked him not to come to the US! He never visited the US! Unlike Modi, Waldhein was the head of state of an ally and a mamber of NATO!

  6. How is Modi’s “crime” different from the “crime” of the Congress? When a huge tree falls, the earth shakes is what Rajiv Gandhi had said when told about the Sikhs being murdered. Modi is no saint, but neither is the Gandhi family. Modi is only a TRUE alternative to Congress rule. We want a real change, not a change from Manmohan Singh to Rahul Gandhi. In Democracy the governments needs to change only then the country progresses. Modi is very different in style and leadership. He represents a real change for the country.


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