In a government thin on talent and high on bluster, Sushma Swaraj is a standout for keeping her head down.
India’s minister of external affairs operates with quiet efficiency, enforcing prime minister Narendra Modi’s expansive foreign policy. Although some doubt the extent of her role in determining the country’s diplomatic trajectory, few can deny that she runs a tight ship. Some of that skilful administration is on regular display during Swaraj’s extraordinary engagement with ordinary Indians—in 140 characters or less.
Yet on Jan. 11, she let loose.
In two tersely worded tweets, the minister rebuked Amazon, demanded an apology, and threatened retribution. Why? Because a third-party seller on Amazon’s Canadian website was hawking doormats emblazoned with the Indian flag.
Amazon responded swiftly with a profuse apology.
The unexpected Twitter tirade scored a direct hit, but the incident reflects the dangerous social media tightrope that Swaraj is walking, staking not just her reputation but also that of India’s foreign ministry. Diplomacy in the age of social media is both powerful and perilous.
Since taking office in 2014, Swaraj’s Twitter feed has transformed into a virtual clearing house for countless requests that she receives mostly from Indian citizens at home and abroad. Some tweet at her stuck inside international airports. Others reach out directly for help with visas and documents. Stranded overseas, distressed Indian workers write to her on Twitter with urgent requests. One man even asked her for help with fixing his refrigerator.
In response, Swaraj—only the second woman to become India’s foreign minister—routinely stages pithily-worded interventions, issues directives, and receives thanks on Twitter, with her seven million followers in tow. (She declined to help with the fridge, though.)
Her work hasn’t gone unnoticed, or unrecognised. Last year, Foreign Policy magazine put her on its list of leading global thinkers “for fashioning a novel brand of Twitter diplomacy.” At home, she’s been polled as the best minister in the Modi government, even drawing rare praise from opposition parties in parliament for her engagement with non-resident Indians.
“She clearly understands the medium and how it can dramatically facilitate communication between high-level officials and common people—communication channels that are much more difficult to establish offline,” said Michael Kugelman, senior associate for south Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington DC-based think-tank.
“There’s something empowering about the thought that if you find yourself in a difficult situation abroad, you can send a tweet to your foreign minister asking for help—with the very real expectation that she will actually respond and help you,” he added.
Matter of perception
By any measure then, Swaraj is anything but your usual social media buccaneer. And that is precisely why her very public lashing out at Amazon, as opposed to what could have been a more discreet rebuke by her ministry’s diplomatic machinery, seems foolhardy to some. That said, her Twitter tirade could broadly be interpreted in two ways: as strength or recklessness.
“The incident reflects India’s new economic leverage. Ten years ago, faced with a formal complaint, Amazon would have probably ignored Indian protests and continued to sell the items,” said Constantino Xavier, a fellow at Carnegie India.
Xavier added that “the EAM (external affairs minister) probably focused on effectiveness: one tweet achieved within hours what would likely have taken days or weeks to resolve through formal and bureaucratic channels.”
There’s much at stake for Amazon in India. In the battle for control over the country’s burgeoning e-commerce sector, the US retailer has already committed $5 billion towards growing its business in Asia’s third-largest economy. The money is following the promise of robust growth: If Amazon plays it right, India could become its second-largest market after the US.
Swaraj’s tough response leveraged exactly those business interests, according to old hands in India’s diplomatic circles. ”Well, it tells the world and tells business, if you want to do business in India, you cannot be touching insensitively on issues that Indians regard as sacrosanct,” said former Indian diplomat G Parthasarathy.
But shouldn’t matters be considered more patiently before issuing such messages on social media? “Yes, if it is a matter of responding to a provocation, if it is a matter of national, commercial, economic interest, yes,” said Parthasarathy. “But this is a matter of a company with a large business in India, growing business in India, insulting us abroad. That’s it.”
Without question, Amazon’s response was swift. A day after Swaraj’s tweets, Amazon India’s vice-president, Amit Agarwal, wrote to the minister. “A third-party seller, not Amazon, had listed these products for sale in Canada. These products were not available in India,” he offered in his apology. “At no time did we intend or mean to offend Indian sentiments.”
Then again, so openly berating one of the world’s biggest retailers at a time when the Modi government is desperate to draw investment isn’t helpful. In the end, it probably won’t have any material impact, but surely the foreign minister openly threatening to withdraw visas on social media doesn’t burnish India’s image.
“This case illustrates the perils of playing to the social media gallery in diplomacy. It should have been ignored or handled discreetly,” argued Sadanand Dhume, resident fellow at Washington DC’s American Enterprise Institute. “Instead Swaraj turned it into an international story that makes India look like a thin-skinned bully with no sense of proportion.”
In the rarified air of international diplomacy, social media is still something of an unknown quantity.
For instance, US president-elect Donald Trump’s habit of poking China on Twitter, on sensitive matters such as Taiwan and the South China Sea, seems to have unsettled Beijing’s foreign policy establishment. “Twitter shouldn’t become an instrument of foreign policy,” Xinhua, China’s state news agency, said in a recent commentary.
It may be too late. “A tweet is neither private nor collaborative, and needs to be viewed as part of a distinctly new form of diplomacy,” said William Dutton, professor of media and information policy at Michigan State University.
The problem, explain Dutton, is that social media is a dramatic break from traditional diplomacy, where career diplomats and politicians typically engage via private communication or carefully crafted formal announcements. “For instance, a tweet is not a press release nor is it face-to-face, interpersonal conversation, but it does not replace such activities,” he added. “It enables more transparency about what an official is thinking and a less mediated, more direct link to the public.”
Such transparency carries with it the additional burden of responsibility, which some are unable to recognise. “Over the past year, both diplomats and world leaders have begun using social media in a more emotionally charged, and sometimes abrasive, manner,” Corneliu Bjola and Ilan Manor of the Oxford Digital Diplomacy Research Group at the University of Oxford said via email.
Emotions can be selectively activated to help messages go viral, and they can also become the focus of “alternative realities” that are pushed by other social media phenomena, including fake news and post-truth narratives. Consider, for example, the many theories Trump raked up during the 2016 US presidential election campaign: Barack Obama’s fake birth certificate, the murder committed by the Clintons, and how the US founded the Islamic State.
“Unleashing emotions online is, though, a high-risk endeavour with huge potential for backlash,” Bjola and Manor wrote. “This is why MFAs (ministries of foreign affairs) would be better off cultivating facts and reason in their digital messages.”
For India’s diplomatic establishment, like everyone else, figuring out social media won’t be easy. The Amazon episode is a case in point.
“Ultimately, Swaraj and other high-level officials will need to strike a balance in their social media engagement: addressing those issues—like the Amazon one—that generate strong demands for action, all the while remaining responsible and judicious and refraining from matters that may be sketchy and simply not worth engaging,” said Kugelman of the Woodrow Wilson Center. “It’s a delicate and difficult dance to pull off.”
At one end, the transparency and immediacy generated by social media—particularly Swaraj’s willingness to listen and intervene—is creating public engagement with India’s foreign minister of the sort that hasn’t been seen in decades. Carnegie India’s Xavier compared it to efforts last seen during prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s time in the 1950s.
At the other end, American Enterprise Institute’s Dhume warned that “there’s always the danger that an overenthusiastic official playing to the peanut gallery will end up projecting India in an unflattering and unhelpful way.”
“It’s awfully easy to do stupid things on Twitter.”