Monday, August 15, 2016

India’s foreign minister is cast as Supermom of State

Rama Lakshmi, "India’s foreign minister is cast as Supermom of State,"

Image from article, with caption: Indian charity worker Judith D’Souza, left, poses in July with Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj after D’Souza was rescued after being kidnapped in Kabul.

NEW DELHI — So far this month, India’s foreign minister has saved thousands of stranded Indian workers in Saudi Arabia — and helped a woman replace her lost passport so she could go on her honeymoon.

Since she took on the job two years ago, Sushma Swaraj, 64, has carved out an unlikely role for herself as a crusading Supermom of State, solving the problems of distressed Indians around the world who send her their concerns via Twitter.

Working late into the night at home, Swaraj tweets back, calling them “my child” and assuring them that help is on the way — whether they are trapped in conflict zones, experiencing visa problems or need to replace lost passports.

Imagine U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry personally helping Americans who tweet to him about their troubles abroad every day. For this, BuzzFeed praised Swaraj as “the most badass foreign minister on the Internet.”

But those who know the longtime member of Parliament are not surprised by her new persona.

Her “personal interventions on social media are really an extension of her personality — empathetic and caring to those in distress, wherever they may be,” said Vikas Swarup, the Foreign Ministry spokesman.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, her boss, was an early adopter of Twitter among Indian politicians and is the third-most-followed world leader after President Obama and Pope Francis. Modi has no official spokesman and often uses Twitter to communicate important messages.

He has also made clear to his cabinet that ministers will be evaluated on their prowess on social media, setting off a “scramble among ministers to look good” on the microblogging site, India Today magazine said in a recent article.

Swaraj has more than 5.5 million Twitter followers, making her one of the most-followed foreign ministers in the world. Keeping pace with her activism, the ministry has also created 165 Twitter accounts for Indian embassies and consulates. But as her reputation as a savior soars, more people are tweeting her directly, bypassing the local embassies.

When a person tweeted an image of laid-off Indian workers who had not eaten for three days, Swaraj responded: “I assure you that no Indian workers rendered unemployed in Saudi Arabia will go without food. I am monitoring this on hourly basis.”

She got eight days of food delivered to the workers and sent officials from her ministry to Saudi Arabia to negotiate with the government to help the workers get the pay they were owed.

Not all of her missions are grave. Last Monday, Faizan Patel tweeted to Swaraj saying he was alone on his honeymoon because his wife lost her passport. He posted a photograph of himself sitting next to an empty seat ona train in Europe.

Swaraj was ready to step in and save the day for the lovebirds.

“Ask your wife to contact me,” she said in a tweet. “I will ensure that she is with you on the next seat.”

Patel’s wife got a new passport the next day.

“Until [Swaraj] came, the Foreign Ministry used to be an elite place for experts and analysts,” said Vijay Chauthaiwale, who heads the foreign affairs department in the governing Bharatiya Janata Party. “But she has made the lives of ordinary Indians abroad part of the ministry’s mission.”

Critics, however, say that Modi micromanages diplomacy to such an extent that he has left Swaraj with little foreign-policy work, forcing her to turn to public diplomacy on Twitter.

“Sushma Swaraj’s visible and prompt engagement with issues in the consular field is an effort to create relevance for herself at a time when her role in foreign policy is reduced because of a very assertive Prime Minister Modi, who likes to lead from the front,” said K.C. Singh, a commentator and former diplomat.

He added that Swaraj must strive to make the system work better. “She need not rush in herself with a fire engine for each incident,” Singh said.

Swaraj’s emotional outreach also landed her in a political scandal last year, when she told British officials it was okay to allow a fugitive cricket mogul to travel from Britain to Portugal to attend his wife’s surgery.

Swaraj entered politics in the 1970s, becoming the youngest government minister at age 25. She is a former Supreme Court lawyer and a fiery orator, and has been the BJP’s go-to politician for a decade in times of difficulties. She is married to a fellow lawyer and politician, and the couple has a daughter who is also a lawyer.

An astute politician, Swaraj was regarded as a Modi critic before 2014. But since he took office, she has dutifully played the role of his shadow. She has tried to strike a balance with her public persona, talking tough with India’s arch-rival Pakistan while also at times embracing softer diplomacy. She presented an exquisite silk sari to Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during a visit, for example.

But it is her rescue missions that win fans all over.

Swaraj has helped Indian workers get home from Yemen, South Sudan, Syria, Iraq and Ukraine. When a man tweeted her that his sister, a flight attendant, was being held in Saudi Arabia by traffickers, Swaraj worked with the local police there to rescue her. She also brought a 23-year-old Indian woman with a hearing and speech disability back from Pakistan, which she accidentally entered more than a decade ago.

In June, Swaraj’s office brought a 12-year-old boy named Sonu back from a shelter in Bangladesh, six years after he was kidnapped from New Delhi.

In a tearful meeting, Sonu touched Swaraj’s feet and the minister hugged him, his father recalled.

“My wife said to her, ‘You are like a god to us.’ She said, ‘I am no god. This is my duty,’ ” recalled Sonu’s father, Mehmood Islamuddin, 42, an automobile mechanic. “We bless her every day for bringing our son back home. May the years of my life be added to hers.”

But there are some things even the Supermom of State cannot do.

In June, someone complained to her on Twitter that a company had sold him a defective refrigerator.

She replied: “Brother I cannot help you in matters of a refrigerator. I am very busy with human beings in distress.”

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