Atlanta philanthropists Madhu and Jagdish Sheth, second and third from left, present an award to Prime Minister Narendra Modi Monday. The 'first-ever' award by a marketing professor prompted a media firestorm in India.

On his current trip to India, Emory University marketing expert Jagdish Sheth’s agenda included a seemingly simple delivery that has set off a politically driven firestorm on Indian media

Dr. Sheth, a chaired professor at Emory’s Goizueta Business School, reportedly presented the “first-ever Philip Kotler Presidential Leadership Award” to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. 

It’s named after one of Dr. Sheth’s globally respected colleagues and a “lifelong friend,” Northwestern University emeritus marketing professor Philip Kotler. 

Dr. Kotler, an economist and 50-plus-year scholar of global marketing, is behind the World Marketing Summit, which has reportedly licensed its brand around the world, including in India, where a local edition of the event concluded in December. 

After Mr. Modi’s office released news of the honor Monday, questions quickly began to surface online about its legitimacy, criteria and selection process, along with what influences that might be lurking behind it.

Indian news service The Wire reported that the award was decided upon separately from the process for the marketing honors doled out at December marketing summit in Delhi. It also noted possible funding links to a Saudi energy subsidiary seeking deals in the country. 

Mr. Modi’s main rival, Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi, wasted no time tweeting a sarcastic response to the prime minister’s award…

…even as many in Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party sent prompt words of effusive congratulation. 

Dr. Kotler, in a seeming effort to dispel any questions about whether he endorsed the award, said in an interview published on a marketing website where he is a contributor that he deputed Dr. Sheth to present the honor to Mr. Modi because his health precluded him from traveling to India. 

He also clarified the required attributes of a Kotler award winner, noting that the head of government receiving the honor each year in the future would have to champion representative government and social justice while encouraging businesses to “practice the triple bottom line, namely to balance profits, people and the planet in their deliberations.” 

“On these criteria, Prime Minister Modi stood the highest. He has improved his country’s image and visibility on the global stage. A committee in the WMS voted on possible leaders given the above criteria,” Dr. Kotler said. He added that the controversy was “regrettable — since the award honors India, inasmuch as it honors PM Modi.”

Mr. Modi faces national elections in the lower house of India’s legislature, the Lok Sabha, in May. Having surged into office in 2014 in platform of tackling corruption and instituting bold reforms, he now faces questions about their effectiveness, especially for the poor. 

Dr. Sheth, a prominent scholar and philanthropist who has endowed major international awards at multiple Atlanta universities including Emory, Kennesaw State and Georgia State, is frequently quoted by Global Atlanta on issues related to the Indian economy and globalization. He is also a periodic guest of the World Affairs Council of Atlanta and other Atlanta organizations, having most recently spoken at a Georgia Indo-American Chamber of Commerce forum. 

Along with his wife, Madhu, who helps run the Sheth Family Foundation backing educational initiatives in Georgia and around the world, Dr. Sheth was pictured presenting the award to Mr. Modi in a photo circulated by the prime minister’s office.

Dr. Sheth is no stranger to Mr. Modi, having presented a copy of his autobiography “The Accidental Scholar” to the prime minister in 2014

The Emory marketing scholar’s and corporate consultant’s family hails from Gujarat, where Mr. Modi made his mark as a pro-investment chief minister (roughly equivalent to a state governor) before he rode that momentum to the prime minister’s job. 

Dr. Sheth predicted big losses for the Congress Party during a 2014 Emory forum ahead of the elections that put Mr. Modi in office

“I think people are ready for a non-compromised government that says, ‘This is what we stand for, this is what we will deliver,’ and be held accountable for it five years from now.” 

Update Jan. 16, 12 p.m.: Reached by email in India, Dr. Sheth pointed to Dr. Kotler’s responses and reiterated that he was simply delivering the award. 

Learn more about Dr. Sheth in this Global Atlanta story on his 80th birthday celebration in Atlanta: Emory Professor’s 80th Birthday Celebrated Appropriately at the ‘Infinite Energy Center’ in Duluth

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...