Dear Foreign Minister, Digital Diplomacy Needs a Thicker Skin

Sushma Swaraj won peoples' hearts with her open access policy on Twitter. Which is why her brittle response to an op-ed criticising her performance as foreign minister has surprised so many.

New Delhi: Ever since her appointment as India’s external affairs minister in 2014, Sushma Swaraj has used Twitter extensively to expand the scope of her ministry. Unlike her contemporaries, who only tweet about political engagements, achievements of the Bharatiya Janta Party and retweet Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Swaraj’s timeline is interactive, friendly and sometimes sassy.

Last year, the “supermom of the state” also earned herself a spot on Foreign Policy magazine’s list of leading global thinkers “for fashioning a novel brand of Twitter diplomacy.” When not busy rescuing stranded Indians at home and abroad, Swaraj is often seen indulging in friendly banter with her followers.

However, like all Twitter warriors, Swaraj, too, say critics, has a chink in her armour — an inability to take criticism in her stride.

On January 13, the Times of India carried an op-ed by policy wonk Sadanand Dhume criticising Swaraj. Comparing her to Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s foreign minister Jaswant Singh, Dhume claimed that despite being one of the most likeable figures in the ruling BJP, Swaraj’s tenure as a minister has been largely forgettable.

“In an increasingly complex world, India needs to stop treating the foreign ministry as a parking lot for veteran politicians with no obvious aptitude for the job,” wrote Dhume. Swaraj was quick to respond.

While Swaraj’s reaction to the critical op-ed wasn’t a surprise, the fusillade that followed was certainly not what most people expect from  one of the most powerful politicians in the country.

sushma swaraj twitter

Screenshot of tweets retweeted by Sushma Swaraj.

The foreign minister spammed her timeline by retweeting several old tweets of people applauding or thanking her. Apart from sharing a piece published by a right-wing propaganda website notorious for publishing fake news, Swaraj also shared old pieces calling her ‘most badass foreign minister’ and a ‘boss’.

The net effect was counter-productive:

Ironically, one of the positive pieces shared by Swaraj ends with – “We hope Dhume takes the criticism from social media users as well [as] the minister took criticism from him.”

The Streisand effect: Dhume’s editorial, which was only shared by a handful of people before Swaraj’s tweet, is now amongst ‘most read’ and ‘most discussed’ pieces on the Times of India website.

If you can’t stop them, block them?

Swaraj faced a lot of flak in 2017 for arbitrarily blocking accounts of people who criticised her on Twitter.

In December 2017, Swaraj allegedly blocked Congress MP Partap Singh Bajwa for repeatedly asking questions about 39 missing Indians in Iraq.

The confrontation between the two leaders began in July when Swaraj gave a statement in the Lok Sabha that the 39 Indians who have been missing is Iraq since 2014 were lodged in a jail in Badush town of Iraq, reported Indian Express.

What happens when you block someone on Twitter

Twitter’s ‘Block’ feature helps users control how they interact with other accounts on the website. If Sushma Swaraj blocks a person, this means they can’t follow her or view her tweets, tag her in their tweets, search for her tweets while being logged in on Twitter, or see who is following her and who she is following.

So if a person blocked by Swaraj is in trouble abroad and needs the kind of consular help she excels in providing, they will have to rely on other means of communication. While there’s no law prohibiting Swaraj from blocking her critics, the drastic move does seem unfair as the minister uses her handle to help out people in distress and all Indian citizens (including those who don’t support her) deserve assistance.