India’s external affairs minister navigates the treacherous waters of social media with a rare clarity of purpose, warmth and sense of direction. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi may be the most followed Indian politician on Twitter and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal the second most, Swaraj’s posts on her Twitter handle have none of the bluster of high office, or the sermonizing and bickering of a political leader.
Ironically—and why ironic I hope to make clear below—I waded into Swaraj’s Twitter handle with a journalist’s curiosity after she responded somewhat strongly to an article by political columnist Coomi Kapoor. “False, malicious and motivated. This gossip writer who describes herself as editor spreads falsehood against me,” Swaraj fumed last week on Twitter.
The reason was an article in The Indian Express where the journalist, the paper’s resident editor in Delhi, wrote, “Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj is a regular on Twitter, sometimes sending out as many as 20 tweets a day, responding to various requests for help from NRIs. But since September 18, the day of the Uri attack (in Kashmir), Swaraj has tweeted sparingly. Some speculate that this is because Swaraj was piqued at not being called for the meeting of key ministers to discuss the government’s policy in the wake of the terror attack.”
A little bit later, Swaraj tweeted again, “I attended all meetings of the Cabinet Committee on Security and addressed United Nations General Assembly after the Uri attack.” Indeed, Swaraj did launch a ferocious attack on Pakistan after the Uri incident in her address to the UN.
What was ironic about this response was that it came from an Indian minister whose Twitter profile is one of a genial and helpful political leader—someone who is generous to a fault with her time and who unfailingly springs to the defence of Indian citizens in distress anywhere in the world. Even as I write this, for instance, Swaraj is helping out—with clear instructions to the Indian embassy in the US—to issue an urgent visa to an American citizen of Indian origin whose father has died in India. The plea came from Sarita Takru in Karnal: “Sushma Swaraj, lost my husband yesterday. My only child Abhai Kaul (American) citizen can’t get Indian visa before Thursday. Is this human?”
Of course, it isn’t—government machinery almost never is human. But the public face of India’s foreign ministry appears to be changing. And after several quick exchanges, the distressed woman was informed: “Our embassy contacted your son. He should submit application and collect visa from our consulate in Chicago.”
Earlier in October, the minister’s handle positively glowed with maternal love after she reached out to Aliya Harir, part of a delegation of young Pakistani women, who were worried about their safe return in the wake of India’s surgical strikes against terrorist bases across the Line of Control at the end of September.
In the middle of mounting tension, Swaraj spread a quintessentially South Asian view of motherhood: “I was concerned about your well-being because daughters belong to us all.” It was an extraordinary intervention that could only have come from a woman.
Swaraj is not an exception on Twitter. When it comes to using social media, this government has been unlike any in India in efforts to turn it into a tool of governance, transparency, communication and—not to forget—public relations.
But not every Indian minister or political leader has a graceful presence on social media. The former minister for human resource development, Smriti Irani, now packed off to textiles, picked fights with journalists with a regularity that made the content of her Twitter handle appear like an ill-tempered brawlfest from late night television news.
When governments embrace the social media, it also becomes important for ministers to learn what to do with it and how to go about it. Learning to maintain dignity and decorum in the public sphere is as important as doing so in your living room—when this public arena turns digital with the power to potentially enter every living room in the world, it becomes incumbent upon public figures to learn the ropes quickly or perish.
There’s no better example around these days than Donald Trump and his intemperate outbursts over Twitter, prompting his Democrat rival Hillary Clinton to wonder sarcastically if the world’s most powerful nation could be left in the custody of a man with his fingers on the nuclear button who could so easily rise to a bait on Twitter.
Over and above that it becomes equally important for politicians to use social media to engage with the world outside, including critics, rather than as a means of promoting themselves or their government. Leaders in not only India but across the world have tended to use social media to “spread the message” as it were in a top-down fashion, much like government advertisements in newspapers. Swaraj, in contrast, engages with her constituency.
That is why she was up at 3.34am in March.
“Sushma Swaraj it was 3.34 am, 90% of Indians were sleeping and she was trying to evacuate a nurse from Yemen,” wrote a fan.
“Yes 3.34 am because that’s the time Sister Sally who escaped from the terrorist attack in Aden was evacuated from Yemen,” she responded. More power to those busy thumbs.
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1