India’s External Affairs Minister (EAM), Sushma Swaraj recently broke new ground. Amazon Canada was selling a doormat that was designed to look like India’s national flag. As soon as a Twitter user pointed this out to her, Sushma Swaraj responded with three tweets.
With these three tweets, India’s EAM lived up to her reputation of being extremely pro-active on Twitter, responding to people online in real-time. Her critics have often pointed out how the Swaraj has been reduced to resolving personal queries and visa/passport issues. But what is not clear is if this was the Minister herself, or one of her staff members who handled regular affairs on Twitter, that had lost his/her cool. If it was indeed. Ms. Swaraj (and not someone’s newphew), it is reminiscent of her “Ek ke badle dus sar” avatar, when speaking on Pakistan’s killing Indian soldiers on the border. I wonder what prompts these unexplained bouts of violent rhetoric.
But the broader issue is that of political remit. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vice like grip of foreign affairs – with the aid of the tall talking Ajit Doval – is there for all to see. Given that, the EAM has been reduced to running an online grievance and counseling cell. In any form of government, with a self-respecting minister, this is an unsustainable arrangement.
The other issue of course is that of the appropriate level of response to incidents such as this. Amazon is a marketplace and not a seller. At best, one can request, citing Indian laws, that they take down the offensive materials from their website. But that is hardly the main issue here.
Of utmost importance is the question of what this means for our global reputation and dignity. We have seen on several issues that successive Indian governments are extremely thin-skinned and resort to indignant outrage at perceived insults to the nation. India is a young country and perhaps, issues such as respecting national symbols are still very potent politically. But we have traditionally demonstrated a maturity beyond our years at the global stage, and that has been our calling card for a large part of India’s independent existence. This kind of boorishness therefore behoves neither the country, nor its people and if anything, only runs contrary to the image of an emerging power that we seek to project.
Several of the BJP’s perennially insecure supporters were joyful that Amazon had been told off. Any criticism of this was met with “you are used to 1200 years of slavery” kinds of nonsense. Our national pride, which should be vested in what our people achieve, is instead threatened by the unsuspecting actions of some who inadvertently misuse our national symbols. This is not how India will own the twenty first century.
What affects our national pride are other important issues: of how free and fair our society is; whether our justice system helps the poor; whether there is space for dissent; of how we treat the weak and vulnerable in our societies; of the political culture that our leaders seek to propagate; etc. If we strengthen these vitals, our external image wil improve automatically. And if we don’t, no amount of showmanship can help us.