Like all bureaucracies, the Government of India can become a stiff and distant set of rules and procedures where protocol becomes more important than the people it is meant to serve. The Ministry of External Affairs has been no exception, and for long, perhaps because of its lofty concerns with India’s place in the world, it appeared far removed from the lives and concerns of citizens. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has done much to change that since she took office. In her use of social media, particularly Twitter, the senior minister has displayed remarkable agility on a platform that is often a place for abuse and political polarisation, to reach out to people in need. Over the last few days, though, the ugly side of Twitter — its abusive trolls — has confronted Swaraj. The way she has handled the controversy holds lessons.
The ostensible reason behind the unseemly language, bordering on threats, deployed against Swaraj is the transfer of Vikas Mishra, an official in the Lucknow Passport Seva Kendra. A Hindu-Muslim married couple alleged that he used prejudiced language and discriminated against them. Despite the minister’s clarification that she was out of the country when Mishra was transferred, she was attacked by scores of people with tweets that brought up her recent kidney transplant, questioned her motives and attacked her in blatantly misogynist terms. That as many as 41 BJP lawmakers follow some of those who abused Swaraj couldn’t have made matters easier for her. But that Swaraj chose neither to be outraged by the attack nor to seem wounded by the insults, does her credit. Instead, she simply “liked” some of the offensive tweets.
In the past, Swaraj has helped Pakistani citizens reach India for medical treatment, kept the public informed about a hostage crisis in Basra and responded to pleas of Indians stranded abroad. In each of these cases, she has been available and responsive on social media. The balance between the personal and official, the effort to make government less distant through social media played is something many politicians and public figures can learn from. But it is the way in which she has handled bullies, those who would misuse the anonymity and the distance of the internet, that is an example for anyone on social media to emulate. With a simple “like”, the external affairs minister displayed both wit and poise, guaranteeing those who would insult her have their 15 minutes of shame.