DEBATE @ THE HINDU The campaign against an elected leader was based on an exaggerated idea of what endorsement by an American university would do for his credibility among voters back home

As anybody with a modicum of knowledge of the American education system realises, private university campuses in that country are fiercely independent of the government and guard their freedom zealously. Such institutions and individuals at such institutions take decisions to teach subjects, advocate causes and invite or occasionally disinvite people on the basis of intellectual preferences, unvarnished by the positions of say the White House or the State Department.

Broadly, this contention is correct. In the specific case of the refusal to allow Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat, to address a business event related to India nobody can accuse the authorities at the University of Pennsylvania or its Wharton School of business of acting in conjunction with the administration in Washington DC. Nevertheless the logic offered by the three Indian-origin professors who led the Modi boycott campaign at the University does suggest some curious convergence.

Time lag

Consider the letter of protest the three professors drafted. It said Mr. Modi was the “same politician who was refused a diplomatic visa by the United States State Department on March 18, 2005, on the ground that he, as Chief Minister, did nothing to prevent a series of orchestrated riots that targeted Muslims in Gujarat.” “In taking cognisance of Mr. Modi’s culpability,” the letter went on, “the State Department also revoked his ‘existing tourist/business visa under section 212 (a) (2) (g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act’ … David C. Mulford, U.S. ambassador to India … went on to say that the State Department's decision was ‘based on the fact that, as head of the State government in Gujarat between February 2002 and May 2002, [Modi] was responsible for the performance of State institutions at that time’.”

The implication of extensively quoting State Department material was obvious. This was a man, the professors were saying, who the U.S. government had prohibited from entering the country. As such by allowing Mr. Modi to address a Wharton event, even if by videoconference, the University was helping him sidestep that embargo. It amounted to giving him legitimacy despite the “cognisance of … culpability” by U.S. government authorities themselves.

This takes us back to that decision of March 2005, when the State Department showed Mr. Modi a red card. Three years had passed since the Gujarat riots. The U.S. embassy in New Delhi did nothing in 2002, 2003 or 2004. Why did it act 36 months later? What pricked its conscience? That question is not irrelevant; it is very germane to this discussion.

It is now fairly well known that the Modi decision was the result of a horrific misjudgement by a political appointee who had just come into the State Department at the beginning of President George W. Bush’s second term. Much against the advice of professional diplomats, this lady pushed ahead with the visa revocation. It was suggested that since Mr. Modi was a Bharatiya Janata Party man, this would win the U.S. favour with the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. Far from influencing voters against Mr. Modi, the gratuitous and clumsy intervention ended up incensing public opinion in India. Today, the three professors and their fellow travellers have done exactly the same thing. They claim to be conscientious objectors. Yet, the inspiration for their objection is a decision that was anything but conscientious, and one even those who took it in Washington DC, in March 2005 recognised as partisan and expedient.

Fundamentally, the State Department’s decision was based on an overstated assessment of how much American approbation or perceived approbation mattered in the exercise of political choices and voting preferences in India. The professors’ campaign to ostracise Mr. Modi is analogous and grounded in the same arrogance. It is premised on an exaggerated idea of how essential a University of Pennsylvania association is for the Gujarat Chief Minister to sell himself to voters and stakeholders in India. It presumes that an American campus — likely one based on the East Coast or in Berkeley — is the international arbiter of decency, values and good taste and can, with the magisterial flick of a switch, turn off the intellectual oxygen for a disagreeable individual and render him a non-person.

Not surprisingly, the move has backfired. It has led to misgivings in India far beyond Mr. Modi’s traditional constituency. Part of the reason for this is the contemporary political situation. The UPA government’s failures have given the Gujarat Chief Minister a greater appeal. Even so, that should not detain us if we are discussing principles rather than personalities. Presumably our positions should be consistent, irrespective of whether Mr. Modi tops the opinion polls or comes near the bottom.

(Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based journalist and commentator. E-mail: malikashok@gmail.com)

This article has been corrected for an editing error.

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