On the day @TheSakshiMalik became the first Indian woman to win a wrestling medal at the Olympics, fellow wrestler Vinesh Phogat received a tweet from External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. Phogat, who had to retire in the middle of her match against Chinese wrestler Sun Yanan in the 48 kg freestyle wrestling category on August 17, had tweeted that she was hurt, “both physically and mentally,” but hoped to recover soon.
To which @sushmaswarajreplied :
Swaraj received 1300 “likes” on her comment and 516 retweets, confirming – if confirmation were necessary – that her popularity on Twitter is second only to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. A 2016 Twiplomacy study recognises that @narendramodi with 22 million followers is the third most popular leader in the world, after Barack Obama and the Pope, and that Swaraj, with 5.64 million, has the highest following for any female leader in the world.
An anecdotal analysis of Swaraj’s timeline may give you a few clues about her soaring popularity. First of all, she has made it her business to be everyone’s agony aunt. She responds to all Indian citizens abroad in distress, across a wide spectrum of distressing situations and increasingly inside India too.
So when a Jaipur resident received several online rape threats for her tweet on gymnast Dipa Karmakar attempting the highly dangerous Produnova vault ("Tonight, she is going to risk her life to win an Olympic medal. Life is not worth any medal, for any damned country”), she tweeted her complaint to Sushma Swaraj who, in turn, requested Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje to help. Soon enough, the Jaipur police had got into the act and “filed” a case.
For the last two years, though, Indians living abroad have known what this Jaipur native only recently found out: that @sushmaswaraj is perhaps the most responsive minister in the Narenda Modi government and you can tweet to her your tale of woe anytime during the day or night.
So here is what 16-year-old Anjali Mohan from Abu Dhabi said, to which Swaraj responded:
SushmaSwarajRetweeted Anjali Mohan
Anjali - I hv sent a word to the Ambassador. Indian Embassy in Abu Dhabi will contact you and help. @IndembAbuDhabi
Anjali Mohan @Iluvmylive
@SushmaSwaraj this is Anjali here. We need your help. My dad is trapped in a fraud case but has no part in it. I am just 16 so I don't know.
456 retweets1,787 likes
Also on August 10, watching a show by TV journalist Rajdeep Sardesai on the incarceration of Mumbaikar Hamid Ansari in a Peshawar jail (it seems Ansari walked across the Durand Line in search of a woman he had fallen in love with), Swaraj tweeted:
I watched your program. We hv sought consular access to Hamid Nehal Ansari. We are earnestly trying for his early release. @sardesairajdeep
And when one Faizan Patel appealed to Swaraj for a new passport for his newly wedded wife so they could go on their honeymoon, she said :
The big question, of course, is whether India’s External Affairs Minister has better things to do? Or has Swaraj decided that she will simply not compete with her own prime minister, who has decided to ally India’s standing abroad with his own profile?
Over the last two years as @narendramoditravelled the world, making friends with @BarackObama and other leaders across the globe, Swaraj was almost never seen by his side. Modi takes a special interest in the promotion of foreign policy, which is what prime ministers since Jawaharlal Nehru have done, and works very hard to promote India’s influence and prestige worldwide but it is equally true that he doesn’t want to share the limelight with anyone else.
So rather than grumble or complain or feel hurt at being excluded from policy-making (it was rumoured in 2014 that Modi didn’t even want to give her one of top four jobs in government), Swaraj decided to do the next best thing. She merged the ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs with the Ministry of External Affairs and transformed herself into Aunty Sushma. She also completely stayed away from putting out any policy initiatives on social media.
So as the Prime Minister directly accused Pakistan of fomenting trouble in the Kashmir valley and invoked Balochistan in the same breath, setting off scores of comments on India possibly sponsoring and supporting Baloch insurgents just as Pakistan does in Kashmir - both accusations are certainly a major shift in Indian foreign policy - the External Affairs Minister, otherwise so active on Twitter, did not say a word.
To be sure, the MEA’s official Twitter handle, @MEAIndia, run by spokesperson Vikas Swarup and his team, puts out mostly everything the PM and Swaraj say or do in terms of policy. This is when photos of Swaraj meeting visiting foreign ministers from the Maldives or Venezuela or China find their way onto the official MEA Twitter handle.
Her own Twitter handle seems limited to operational matters, including appeals to the Indian diaspora to help their fellow Indians in distress ( like in the case of Saudi Arabia) or occasionally reprimanding someone who wanted to know how to fix his refrigerator.
That tweet went viral - shared 8220 times and liked 10,278 times. So what if India’s Pakistan policy was increasingly run by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, who also happens to be the Special Representative on the border talks with China? With her ready sense of humour and peaceable temperament Swaraj has stormed her way into people’s hearts, and shows no signs of leaving.
Meanwhile, her two ministers of state, General V.K. Singh and M.J. Akbar, are as different as chalk from cheese. Singh, a former army chief, mostly keeps out of the media’s way, especially after he labeled journalists “presstitutes,” while Akbar, a former journalist and author of several books, cannot but help commenting not only on the changing politics of the land but also what he thinks about it.
Singh has to be among the more nondescript junior ministers the MEA has ever had which is probably why Swaraj sends him to do the more prosaic, albeit important, jobs in the business. For example, when several hundred workers were suddenly sacked in Saudi Arabia, the general was packed off to fix things.
Of course, he needed to complete his tweet with the use of Sushma’s name. Other tweets by @Gen_VKSingh are even more sycophantic. He routinely retweets the PM and is constantly congratulating him and senior ministers for doing their jobs.
Mercifully, @mjakbar is made of more colourful stuff. In New York to launch the Tiranga Yatra as part of a BJP effort to salute the flag on the 69th anniversary of India’s independence in various parts of the country and abroad, Akbar put out the B-word in a series of tweets, giving the PM’s remarks the intellectual heft no one else dared to.
Another tweet said: “We are a nation which believes in faith equality and not in faith supremacy. Nations created in the name of faith supremacy are coming apart….” And another: “Those who use the façade of human rights in order to sponsor barbaric terrorism are hypocrites of the worst kind.”
Certainly, there’s never a dull day in South Block. As the BJP launches itself into its third year in office, word is that the PM will send Swaraj to represent India at the UN General Assembly next month after having gone himself for the last two years. That gesture signals a growing trust in Swaraj.
Some things, however, don’t change. Despite a government devoted to the digital footprint, which means that Modi’s team has created several Twitter handles in his name - @narendramodi, @narendramodi_in, @NarendraModi_PM, @NamoApp, @PMOIndia, @PMHouseIndia, @BJP4India, @BJPLive, @sushmaswaraj, @MEAIndia, @mjakbar, @GenVKSingh – which often end up repeating information, the story on August 17 about Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar accepting Pakistan’s invitation for talks, though only on cross-border terrorism and not Kashmir, is nowhere to be found.
Not on the numerous Twitter handles created for the PM, nor for Sushma Swaraj, not on the official MEA handle and certainly not on any of the BJP sites.
The Modi government’s most active ministry had to fall back upon “deep background”, meaning information by sources you cannot name, to put out information on its Pakistan strategy. All the Twitter handles created to disperse the “national interest” were simply not up to the task of the human being.
Jyoti Malhotra is a senior journalist based in New Delhi