Sushma Swaraj is perhaps the most ‘millennial’ minister the Indian government has ever had. From being tagged the ‘supermom’ of India by Washington Post to becoming one of the most followed politicians on Twitter, the External Affairs Minister has truly struck a chord with young and old alike with her round-the-clock social media presence, eagerness to help, and ready wit on social media.
With her latest announcement that she won’t contest the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, here’s a look at the minister’s performance on social media.
The humanitarian side Swaraj has come to define what social scientists have started to refer to as ‘digital diplomacy’, i.e., the use of technological interventions to further diplomatic concerns for a state. To that effect, the long-term parliamentarian has successfully made her mark as the ‘human face’ of diplomacy through social media as Prime Minister Narendra Modi remarked. Since taking up the reins of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in 2014 in the Modi cabinet, Swaraj has used an open-access Twitter policy and has used the platform extensively to connect with voters, Indians living overseas and even persons from other nationalities, most famously, Pakistanis.
In 2017, Swaraj impressed fan and critics when she decided to grant a year-long medical visa to a Pakistani girl Shireen Shiraz for an open heart surgery. She helped out two more Pakistani nationals the same year by granting them medical visas for carrying out liver surgeries in India. Not just Pakistanis. In 2015, she helped out a Yemeni woman who was married to an Indian. The woman had tweeted an image of her 8-month old baby and made a plea for evacuation from the conflicted area. Her humanitarian aid has won her praise from political counterparts, both national and international.
In February 2015, she shot to international Twitter fame after she helped out 168 Indians trapped in Basra, Iran. She had been acting on the basis of a video shared with her on social media. In the same year, she helped out an Indian national who had lost her wallet passport and money in Berlin, Germany.
— Sushma Swaraj (@SushmaSwaraj) February 22, 2015
In 2016, she helped out an Indian man to rescue his brother who had been stuck at Doha airport.
— Sushma Swaraj (@SushmaSwaraj) March 6, 2016
She also responded to Dutch national Suzanne Lugano’s pleas on Facebook to help her locate her sister who was lost in Rishikesh. Swaraj had her team of officers successfully track the girl down.
In 2018, Swaraj helped out a man who had been stuck in the USA without a passport and was due to return home for his wedding in a few days.
Devatha Ravi Teja – You have lost your Passport at a very wrong time. However, we will help you reach for your wedding in time.
— Sushma Swaraj (@SushmaSwaraj) July 30, 2018
According to those close to the minister, her proclivity to offer help on social media is not out of character for Swaraj. MEA spokesperson Vikas Swarup had once commented that Swaraj’s exuberance and generosity on social media was just an extension of her real, emphatic and caring self. However, her reign on Twitter has not been one without hiccups.
Controversies The honour of being the most popular woman world leader on social media comes with its own share of problems. Like most major players on the internet, Swaraj has also time and again been the victim of social media shaming, trolling and controversy. The fact that she is a woman often compounded the trolling. One of the most intense trolling phases the Foreign minister had to endure came in Jun 2018 when she intervened in the case discriminating against an interfaith couple from Lucknow who were refused a passport by a local passport officer. Swaraj promptly had the erring officer transferred, but the move did not sit well with many on social media. In fact, so much was the hate that the minister was compelled to respond with a Twitter poll, asking people how many of them approved her trolling. Forty three percent responded in the affirmative.
I was out of India from 17th to 23rd June 2018. I do not know what happened in my absence. However, I am honoured with some tweets. I am sharing them with you. So I have liked them. — Sushma Swaraj (@SushmaSwaraj) June 24, 2018
Friends : I have liked some tweets. This is happening for the last few days. Do you approve of such tweets ? Please RT
— Sushma Swaraj (@SushmaSwaraj) June 30, 2018
Swaraj has also been criticized for just being a ‘Twitter Minister’. Her inclination to ‘block’ users who criticize her has also been a talking point among critics. However, in most cases, Swaraj has exhibited an easy wit and sharp acumen when it comes to dealing with trolls. When she was attacked for being a ‘Twitter Minister’, Swaraj, who holds the title of being the youngest minister ever to be inducted in a cabinet at age 25, responded by saying that those who criticise her would surely appreciate her Twitter work if their loved ones are stranded.
Her percipient, often astute responses to some of the questions asked of her have made her a favourite among Twitterati, especially among young netizens. Sample some of the best ones:
I will have to consult the volcano there. https://t.co/bv2atzWtZg
— Sushma Swaraj (@SushmaSwaraj) August 8, 2018
With Swaraj announcing that she will not be contesting in the next elections, her husband Swaraj Kaushal tweeted the following: “Madam – Thank you very much for your decision not to contest any more elections. I remember there came a time when even Milkha Singh stopped running. @sushmaswaraj.” When a fan of the minister tweeted that she was amazing, Mr Kaushal responded saying, “Nice to hear that. I married her for the same reason.”
Kaushal has been a strong supporter of Sushma through her victories and trials on Twitter. When she was attacked for the Lucknow passport officer controversy, Kaushal came out in her support:
“Your words have given us unbearable pain,” he tweeted in reply. “Just to share with you, my mother died of cancer in 1993. Sushma was an MP and a former Education Minister. She lived in the hospital for a year.She refused to engage a medical attendant and attended on my dying mother personally…Such was her devotion to the family. As per my father’s wish, she lit my father’s pyre. We adore her. Please do not use such words for her. We are first generation in law and politics. We pray for nothing more than her life. Pls convey my profound regards to your wife.”
Swaraj has cited health as the reason for sitting out the next election. While her fans and well wishers wished her well, the fact remains the emphatic minister will surely be missed, in the cabinet as well as on social media.