The government’s conduct of Twitter diplomacy in recent days has invited disquieting questions. First, Union External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj — who is better known for her inventive and imaginative use of the social media platform to convey a personal touch to an office wrapped in hauteur and protocol — tweeted a warning to online retail giant Amazon for doormats being sold on its Canada portal depicting the Indian flag. In a tone that was disproportionately aggressive, she asked Amazon to withdraw and apologise or else — visas would not be issued, and those that had been given out would be rescinded. In response, Amazon pulled down the products under question and expressed regret. That did not assuage Economic Affairs Secretary Shaktikanta Das evidently. On Sunday, Das took it on himself to ask the e-commerce company to “behave” and “desist from being flippant about Indian symbols and icons”. In later tweets, Das “clarified” that his comments were made as a “citizen of India”, but the damage had been done. Overreaction by the minister had been compounded by the bureaucrat overstepping his brief.
Certainly, the doormat in question could be seen as insensitive and in bad taste. If the government wanted to register its objection, it could have done so, at the appropriate level, without spectacle. By reacting in the way they did, Swaraj and Das could be accused of getting many things wrong. There are several practical difficulties, for instance, with the policing of online platforms. Their response also sends out an impression that is extremely unflattering for a country of India’s size and aspiration: That the grant or denial of visa is a decision taken by an individual acting on Twitter out of anger or whim. To give a visa or not to is the sovereign right of any nation, and while there may not be very specific guidelines, a visa manual forms the bedrock of the process and there are internal audits and checks to ensure that discretion is used judiciously. Then, while Das’s belligerence can be dismissed as the official’s end-of-tenure intemperance, Swaraj’s public dressing down to Amazon is a case of stooping low. The sights of India’s external affairs minister must be set a lot higher. She must also, at all times, keep in mind the fact that great powers, or those aspiring to be great powers, can ill afford to look touchy or egotistic.
They must choose their battles wisely, instead of flexing diplomatic muscle indiscriminately or in ways that belie their own commitment to be open and hospitable to those who want to do business with them.
Of course, Amazon has given in and victory has been declared over the online retailer. But the winner may have lost something in winning it.