“Wharton’s Action a Wakeup Call”
By Dr. Richard Benkin
Address to Americans for Free Speech
Rally at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia
March 23, 2013
My name is Dr. Richard Benkin, a Penn alumnus and a former Wharton School student. I am also a human rights activist trying to stop the ethnic cleansing of Hindus in Bangladesh. My apologies that illness has prevented me from being with you today, but I appreciate the opportunity to address you remotely.
I could sit here and rant about my alma mater’s actions; shake my fists and tell you how cowardly they were; how much they deprived students of needed information and are thus contrary to what Wharton advertises itself as. I could tell you how the continued slander of the great man from Ahmedabad is a slap in the face of the Indian legal system that has exonerated him time and again, the Indian political system that has given him an unprecedented four consecutive terms as Gujarat’s Chief Minister, and the millions of Gujaratis from all faiths who gave him their votes. And I could tell you how Narendra Modi is the only national Indian leader who has supported my human rights struggle—and that his support is not only principled but heartfelt as well. But with the exception of the last point, I would no doubt be repeating what others have said already.
If there is anyone on this planet who knows what it takes to develop the Indian economy and has the chops to do it and therefore is germane to the Wharton Indian Economic Forum that was deprived of his presence, that person is Narendra Modi. His economic miracle in Gujarat has captured the imagination of Indians of all political and religious stripes and stands as a potential model for development throughout the subcontinent. It is a proven solution to the economic challenges facing India in the 21st century, and India’s future depends upon the open discussion of these various strategies.
But Wharton’s action had nothing to do with any of that or with academic freedom, human rights, or economics; it had everything to do with political strategy and the pivotal Indian elections a year away. It should be a wake-up call for all of us.
The feeling right now in India is almost electric. Cries for the BJP to name Narendra Modi its candidate for Prime Minister grow louder each day. For the first time in years, it appears that the BJP, with Modi as its standard bearer, has a strong chance of unseating the almost dynastic left-center Congress Party. And the anti-Indian and hyper-leftist nexus is scared to death.
They realize that in 2009 when they handed the BJP a crushing defeat in the last national elections, India had not yet experienced the economic dislocation of the worldwide recession that most other countries were feeling. Since conditions seemed “okay,” they were not of a mind to vote for change. But today things are different. While many of those other economies have begun to recover, the Indian economy has stagnated. My US dollars fetched fewer and fewer rupees with every successive trip I made to India—until this year when they got more than they did before 2009. Inflation was at a double digit rate throughout most of 2010 and 2011; and it crept back up again in February as Indians saw prices on consumer items with the greatest impact on their lives rise dramatically. And the Congress Party’s new budget promises even more price hikes on items like railway tickets, hitting both the rising middle class and the mass of people hard.
My own unscientific survey of taxi and rickshaw drivers, hotel clerks, street vendors, fellow train passengers, and others found a unanimous sentiment that things had to change, that current policies were not going to get it done, and that in the words that I heard again and again, “Narendra Modi needs to do for the rest of India what he did for Gujarat.” Making the Congress Party’s political strategists’ job even tougher is the fact that Modi’s personal life is beyond reproach, and he has never been credibly associated with any sort of corruption. So, what are they left with?
Wharton provides a clue. The one drumbeat that Modi ji’s opponents can always be counted on to sound is the decade-old charge, still unproven, that he had something to do with the 2002 communal riots there. The problem for Congress is that the cry has been sounded so often, few Indian voters are likely unfamiliar with it. Those who would not vote for Modi because of it long ago made up their minds; another round of screeds is not likely to have an impact on the election. But what if Congress can convince voters that the charge itself—true or not, dismissed by the Supreme Court or not—has cemented Modi in the minds of too many foreigners as a human rights violator and therefore as someone unfit to lead the country? Expect a non-stop effort by Congress and its coteries of allies on the left to try and make that point, truth be damned.
The good news is that this first foray seems to have caused more support for Modi than the negative press the strategists intended. Sponsors pulled out of the conference in protest and as today’s gathering shows, the anger was directed against the foreigners who manipulated the situation and slapped the Indian legal system and people in the face. It is the same strategy the left used to try and stop Ariel Sharon from becoming Israel’s Prime Minister with old and false charges. It did not work then, and it will not work now. The UK and the European Union among others have already had discussions with Modi ji, and US Congressman Aaron Schock of Illinois noted from the floor of the United States House that Modi is “running on a platform of economic prosperity for all.”
So far, Modi ji and the party have done a good job of emphasizing his economic and administrative genius while avoiding any potentially divisive issues, and they cannot let annoyances like Wharton take them off topic. Like Republicans here in 2012, the BJP is making the point that the incumbents have badly mishandled the people’s money and lives. As the very long campaign season dragged on in the US, however, the point had been made so many times as the compelling reason to vote for a change, that even a slight upturn in the economy in the Fall was enough to convince enough Americans not to vote for one. But while the Republicans failed to give the people a positive alternative, the BJP and Narendra Modi are providing a strong one. And that is what scares the pants of those who manipulated Wharton into its shameful act!
It is now in our hands. We will NOT let them hijack the elections and more importantly the Indian peoples’ future. We will NOT let them go unchallenged with their lies. And we will NEVER let them propagate their racist theories that would have us believe that only their legal system has validity!