This has been an eventful week for Sushma Swaraj - on Twitter. First she threatened the husband of a railway employee in Jhansi. The poor man, who lives in Pune, had committed the blunder of approaching Swaraj on the social media site to get his wife and himself reunited.
Swaraj proceeded to tell him that she does not handle railways, which is obvious enough, but that had this been her department, she would have got the government employee suspended.
If you or your wife were from my Ministry and such a request for transfer was made on twitter, I would have sent a suspension order by now. https://t.co/LImngQwFh6— Sushma Swaraj (@SushmaSwaraj) January 8, 2017
The brusque tone was a revelation from a person who has made a name for herself by answering passport queries on Twitter.
Swaraj is one of the most active ministers of the Narendra Modi government on the site, and often draws both cheers and criticism for going the extra mile to resolve what can at times seem trivial complaints.
The other contretemps of the week involved Amazon, whose Canada operations were found selling doormats with prints of the Indian flag. Swaraj promptly - and rightly - took up the issue, directing the Indian High Commission to parley with Amazon.
For good measure, she threatened to revoke visas for all foreigners working in Amazon India. (Amazon Canada has since removed the offensive merchandise from its website.)
There is no gainsaying that the doormats were in extremely poor taste, and Swaraj’s alacrity is admirable. But both incidents show the tragic limits of the minister’s empathy.
Perhaps requesting for a transfer order on Twitter was out of place, but we know how systems in India work, don’t we? Government departments are notoriously lethargic and discretion-based, and when a central minister is found solving day-to-day troubles of the common man on Twitter, what’s wrong with the husband of a railway employee hoping to pull some strings too?
It is also true that most queries that Swaraj gets cracking on involve those who have run into trouble with some or the other department of the external affairs ministry. Apart from the workers stranded in West Asia, this group is mostly upper class Indians - by some estimates, only 5 crore Indians (or 6.5 per cent of the population) hold a passport.
On this basis, it would be tempting to brand Swaraj’s Twitter work as “elitist”, an abused term that is thrown around when there is little room for real criticism. What cannot be denied, though, is that while Twitter toil makes for great optics, it is not, in all honesty, the work of the external affairs minister.
|In 2015, Swaraj was in the dock during Lalit Modi’s flight from India. (Photo: India Today)|
Would Swaraj not be better advised to relegate this transactional work to others and deploy her brilliance in developing a robust foreign policy?
The flag incident is more damaging for Swaraj’s reputation, not for what she did (which I completely support) but for what it tells us about her priorities.
In 2015, Swaraj was in the dock during Lalit Modi’s flight from India. She had facilitated Modi’s travel documents from the UK on “humanitarian grounds” - and it was later revealed that her daughter Bansuri was on the legal team defending Modi in the case involving his passport.
At the time, Swaraj had sought to downplay her daughter’s role in an effort to prove that she had not helped Modi on nepotistic grounds.
Rahul Gandhi’s attack on Swaraj must have come as a personal blow since the charge involved her daughter. So deep is parental love that even politicians, a famously thick-skinned lot, can’t bear slights on their offspring (Karunanidhi’s poor health when his daughter went to jail in connection with the 2G scam is another recent example).
Swaraj reacted with rare force in Parliament, at one point bringing up Bansuri’s low number in the roster of those representing Modi to bolster her claim that her daughter, and by association she, were not guilty.
I was reminded of this rare low in Swaraj’s career by this week’s events. Swaraj chose to be (perhaps rightly) “humanitarian” towards an industrialist who continues to face charges over his handling of the Indian Premier League. Yet, when a common employee of the railway requested her intervention, she shut him down.
The Lalit Modi storm passed and even to Swaraj’s critics, the case represented a side effect of political office. After all, other political bigwigs have extracted far bigger pounds of flesh. Family is family, and sometimes you just have to look the other way.
All true, yet Swaraj is the champion of an anti-surrogacy Bill that will deny many infertile couples the very right to a family that Swaraj defended with all her might and oratorical flourish.
Swaraj’s defence of Bansuri was the fierce protection a mother affords her child, yet Swaraj has turned a blind eye to the maternal instincts of many others.
A related point is the kidney transplant that Swaraj received at the end of 2016. If the learned minister is fine accepting a donor’s kidney, why does she deny the right of a woman to rent her womb to another?
Protections to ensure the rights of the surrogate are welcome but a blanket ban on surrogacy is hypocritical in light of Swaraj’s own recent health needs. What is worse, had she not been unwell, the surrogacy Bill would have been introduced in Parliament now, and perhaps even become law.
So yes, it is important that we respect our flag and ensure that it does not end up as a doormat, but the flag represents a nation and ultimately its people.
If Swaraj were to show the same eagerness ameliorating the plight of those who are not as well connected as some or those who battle soul-sapping health problems, perhaps that would be a far greater tribute to the Indian flag.