Doormat Nationalism

Sushma Swaraj
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The foreign minister could have done without such an overreaction

IN AN AGE of instant reactions, it is easy to take extreme political positions. With Twitter, Facebook and Whatsapp around, it’s just a few finger taps away, unlike a bygone era when it took much longer to stir up anger. Something similar happened with Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj on January 11th. Otherwise very affable and responsible in equal measure, Swaraj reacted rather vehemently to the complaint of one Atul Bhobe, who was upset that Amazon’s Canadian unit, Amazon Canada, was selling doormats with the pattern of the Indian flag on them. Soon enough, Swaraj issued tweets wagging a finger at Amazon. In one tweet, she said that ‘Amazon must tender unconditional apology. They must withdraw all products insulting our national flag immediately.’ Minutes later, this was followed by another tweet that went, ‘If this is not done forthwith, we will not grant Indian Visa to any Amazon official. We will also rescind the Visas issued earlier.’ Since then, the US-based online retailer has taken the ‘offending’ product off its Canadian site.

This sort of approach raises many questions. On the face of it, creating doormats with the national flag may be offensive to many Indians (and is aesthetically unappealing in any case). But poor design taste cannot, and should not, turn into threats saying, ‘Do X, or else I will do Y.’ This kind of behaviour is reminiscent of street-side thuggery and no more. Then there is the question of location. The product was being sold by a Canadian outlet and not an Indian one. The preferences of consumers in a different part of the world should not be of concern to people living elsewhere, as long as they don’t affect the latter in any material way. But to force people overseas to adhere to an Indian sensibility comes close to the sort of intolerance displayed by many religions and extreme ideologies. Surely, India, a land known for its pluralism, should not indulge in this behaviour.

Then there are pragmatic concerns that are no less important than the ethical and aesthetic issues. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, ever since he assumed India’s top office, has gone out of his way to woo new technology companies such as Facebook, Google and Amazon. But what his External Affairs Minister is doing casts a different hue on what he is seeking for India: technology and investment. Such an ad hoc approach can dampen the spirits of even the most ardent Indophile.