When Atul Bhobe, with all of 20 followers on Twitter, tweeted out a screenshot of Amazon’s website to India’s foreign minister, he probably set off alarm bells within the multinational conglomerate’s top ranks in India and in the US.
The issue: Amazon was selling doormats with the Indian flag on its Canadian website.
The reaction: A series of angry tweets demanding the Indian high commission in Canada to take action immediately, and a threat to Amazon executives that their visas would be cancelled.
This is one of the more baffling outbreaks of emotion by an Indian minister against a foreign multinational in recent history.
The problem with the way she has reacted isn’t that there are Canadian flag doormats on Amazon.ca too. The most concerning thing is that this was a sincere and emotional reaction by one of the most powerful public officials in the Indian government. I would go so far as to say that the way she reacted was pedestrian.
Right now, India is at a time when we desperately need international credibility. The chaos that followed demonetisation fed into a narrative of the Indian state being bumbling, disorganised, and stupid. Foreign news media thrives on this narrative, and there is probably a New York Times correspondent in Delhi artfully putting down in prose the impulsive nationalist rage of Sushma Swaraj.
Do other countries like China try and strong-arm private companies into behaving how they want in other territories? Yes. But we have to remember, again and again, that China is an authoritarian state. More than that, China is an authoritarian state that has mastered the art of international relations and subtlety in imposing their will on governments and corporations around the globe.
Sushma Swaraj tried doing that today. But she failed, because she chose panic over persuasion; public humiliation over private negotiation; and nationalistic hysteria over pragmatic outreach. By threatening Amazon’s executives for allowing flag doormats in a different country, the Indian foreign minister has forever stained the progress of international businesses’ trust in India.
Amazon is very cautious in India. Recently, even without laws regulating online content, they censored their Prime Video service in the country. But how far can caution go if sale listings in a different country become the subject of intense personal outrage that creeps into a cabinet minister’s professional decision-making?
A junior Indian diplomat making a phone call to an Amazon executive in Canada would have yielded the same result that Swaraj has tried to get via public intimidation. Make no mistake, there were no cold calculations that led to those tweets. That was an emotional outburst, and it showed bad judgement. This is not how our emissary to the world should be behaving. And it certainly doesn’t do us any good even if she gets those listings off of Amazon’s website. There are scant electoral benefits to reap too.
Today we got to see the dark side of Sushma Swaraj’s much-hailed Twitter diplomacy. I will leave it to others to draw the Trump parallels. In a time when the largest democracy on earth and the second largest country by population is relatively diminished in geopolitical might and international influence, Sushma Swaraj has validated those who are skeptical of our republic. I would be surprised if our diplomats find it easy to keep their head up when representing New Delhi tomorrow.