There is more to external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj’s apparently graceful response to the Twitter trolling she has faced over her ministry’s issuance of a passport to an inter-faith couple than meets the eye.
Swaraj has been the target of offensive tweets for helping Tanvi Seth, wife of Mohammad Anas Siddiqui, get her passport after an officer allegedly harassed her for not changing her name to a Muslim one after marriage.
It is significant that a Hindustan Times analysis revealed that 41 BJP parliamentarians, who are either ministers in the Union cabinet or elected MPs to the Lok Sabha, follow at least one of the accounts that tweeted a message which Swaraj regarded as trolling. It transpires that Narendra Modi follows eight of those accounts.
Although there is nothing to suggest that any or all of the abovesaid 41 BJP parliamentarians endorse the tweets posted against her, the proximity of the ‘hate trollers’ and the Twitter accounts of these BJP MPs and ministers, including the prime minister, tell a story of its own.
On June 30, which was Social Media Day, apparently unaffected by the bitter trolling of his colleague, Prime Minister Modi congratulated his ‘young friends for their innovative usage of social media’, which ‘has played a key role in democratising our discourse’ and that ‘their frank method of conveying opinions is extremely endearing’.
In the background of the parallel and heavy trolling of Swaraj, Modi’s tweets meant only one thing: he had no sympathy for his colleague.
Politicians of all hues and commentators over Facebook, online and printed media, were quick in responding to the bitter trolling of Swaraj and her apparently gentle response. Union ministers Rajnath Singh, Nitin Gadkari and Ram Vilas Paswan, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir Mehbooba Mufti, the Indian National Congress and other opposition parties, all separately came in support of Swaraj. Rajnath Singh said the trolling was ‘wrong’ but added that “she should not have liked the tweets that offended her” and “there was no need to conduct the poll on Twitter” that she had done to canvass support for civil language.
On July 3, Sidharth Bhatia wrote in The Wire that Swaraj’s “polite response means that she chose to swallow the insults”. The same day, Swaraj directly hit back at a troll. When one of her critics asked her to do her a favour and block her on Twitter, Swaraj shot back in Hindi “Why wait? Here you go, you’re blocked”.
The BJP came out with a delayed and weak defence of Swaraj when its national general secretary Ram Madhav wrote a piece in the Indian Express on July 6. Madhav is clear that trolling Swaraj, a champion of nationalism, on the passport issue is unacceptable, and also admits that the trollers are from the same side. Yet his main grouse seems to be why the trollers have let got the “regressive Muslim cleric” who performed the nikah and forced a Hindu woman to change her name. In another piece in the Indian Express on July 10, Apoorvanand looks at the issue ideologically and concludes that the trolls that target Swaraj are a byproduct of her and her party’s politics.
A few words on who is Sushma Swaraj (nee Sharma) might be relevant. Born in Ambala, Haryana, her father was a prominent RSS member hailing from Lahore. She began her political life with the ABVP but was influenced by her husband and colleague in the legal profession, Swaraj Kaushal, who was a socialist by conviction and closely associated with the socialist leader George Fernandes. This took her to active participation in JP’s total revolution movement and the legal defence team for Fernandes in 1975. After the Emergency, she joined the BJP and soon became one of its prominent national leaders. Since then she has twice been an MLA in Haryana and the youngest ever cabinet minister in the country at the age of 25. She has been chief minister of Delhi for a brief period. She has been a member of parliament for seven terms, leader of the opposition in the 15th Lok Sabha and Union minister in-charge of important portfolios like information and broadcasting, health and now external affairs since May 2014.
After taking over the MEA, Swaraj has been virtually reduced to the handling of overseas Indian affairs with foreign policy being exclusively handled and directed by Prime Minister Modi and his cohorts NSA advisor Ajit Doval and, till recently, foreign secretary S. Jaishankar. She has done the job allocated to her well. By creating the ‘Twitter Seva’ service and now the passport seva mobile app she has helped thousands of Indian citizens in difficulty abroad. The passport seva mobile app, which allows migrant applicants to apply for a passport from their original place of residence, was launched on June 27 and by June 29, there were one million downloads. As recently as July 11, Swaraj tweeted that she was hearing only harsh language these days, a comment which means that she continues to be the victim of vicious and bitter trolling. No wonder, communication firm Burson Cohn & Wolfe concluded after a survey, that she is the most followed female world leader on Twitter with more than 10 million followers.
It is clear that Sushma Swaraj’s response to the bitter trolling was not only firm but also reflected her determination to uphold the passport rules rather than succumb to the coercion of communal trolling. She thereby upheld the Rule of Law, rather than the rule of the mob. She stood up to Modi and his loyalists and showed him who is the real external affairs minister. By holding a surprise Twitter poll on trolls where she secured a majority, she demonstrated her popular base. By getting support from her cabinet colleagues and political leaders from different parties, she proved that she commands respect.
Those who say Swaraj’s response to the trolling was inadequate have not realised that what she did is tantamount to a virtual revolt both within the BJP as well as the RSS. Her response, although couched in gentle terms, may gather more force in the coming months and take a clear shape only before the Lok Sabha polls in 2019. Given the fact that Swaraj enjoys having support and friends both within her party and outside, her present stand and actions may even influence, at the same time, the result of the elections, as well as the choice of the next prime minister, should Narendra Modi fail to deliver a decisive victory for the BJP.
Aurobindo Ghose is a lawyer and human rights activist, practicing in the Supreme Court of India. He is a retired professor from Delhi University.