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Diplomacy through Twitter

Shashi Tharoor’s article “When tweets trump diplomacy” (Feb. 10) came as a total surprise. Here is an Indian minister who popularized the use of Twitter among ministers and politicians and faced flak for it from the establishment. The same man is now criticizing Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj for the extensive use of the microblogging site to empower the people of India. This is ironic and tragic.
Swaraj has emerged as the most popular politician among Indians abroad for her proactive decision-making via Twitter. As Devjyot Ghoshal wrote in Quartz India last month, her skilful administration is on regular display during her extraordinary engagement with ordinary Indians, in 140 characters or less.
Since taking office in 2014, Swaraj’s Twitter feed has transformed into a virtual clearing house for countless requests that she receives mostly from Indian citizens at home and abroad. Some reach out directly for help with visas and documents. Stranded overseas, distressed Indian workers write to her on Twitter with urgent requests. One man even asked her for help fixing his refrigerator.
In response, Swaraj — only the second woman to become India’s foreign minister — routinely stages pithily-worded interventions, issues directives and receives thanks on Twitter, with her 7 million followers in tow (she declined to help with the fridge though). Her work has not gone unnoticed or unrecognized. Last year, Foreign Policy magazine put her on its list of leading global thinkers “for fashioning a novel brand of Twitter diplomacy.”
At home, she has been polled as the best minister in the Narendra Modi government, even drawing rare praise from opposition parties in Parliament for her engagement with non-resident Indians.
Michael Kugelman, senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center, rightly said she clearly understands the medium and how it can dramatically facilitate communication between high-level officials and common people — communication channels that are much more difficult to establish offline.
There is something empowering about the thought that if you find yourself in a difficult situation abroad, you can tweet your foreign minister asking for help, with the very real expectation that she will actually respond and help.
To say Swaraj may be going too far, responding to every case of a lost passport or delayed visa tweeted to her — an approach that has earned her the not-entirely flattering sobriquet of “India’s minister for consular affairs” — is absolutely wrong. Tharoor is perhaps jealous of Swaraj’s popularity. Other ministers and politicians in India should follow her suit. Her’s is an example worth emulating. — Muntajib Zakaria, Jeddah