Sushma Swaraj puts Amazon in its place over doormat: Has it really come to this for MEA?

Never mind if we can't get Lalit Modi extradited, if we can't get Vijay Mallya to face Indian courts and pay up his overdue loans or even if we have to just make up stories about Dawood Ibrahim's assets being frozen in Dubai. As long as we can get the owner of some mom-and-pop store in Canada for selling mats and rugs to Canadians, we can always claim to be a great country with a lot of diplomatic muscle.

So, congratulations, Sushma Swaraj for taking down a retailer in Canada!

Our flag is now indeed flying across the globe, everyone is genuflecting to it out of fear and threat of eviction.

File image of Sushma Swaraj. PTI

File image of Sushma Swaraj. PTI

On Wednesday night, the Indian foreign minister threatened to not allow Amazon employees to travel to India if the online giant did not take down from its Canadian site, doormats and rugs with the Indian flag on them. She also threatened to rescind visas of the staff in India if Amazon did not comply with her threat.

What the Indian foreign minister has effectively done is this: She has bullied an MNC into not allowing a third party retailer to sell its products in a foreign country to people of that country because it hurts the sensibilities of Indians due to the presumed disrespect to the Indian tricolour.

This has set a new precedent and opened up a Pandora's Box. For argument's sake, let us consider the corollary. If tomorrow, the US has a problem with a product sold in India for Indians (emphasis added), will its foreign secretary bully the retailer into withdrawing it by denying visa, or threatening some other action? What if every country starts having problems with products being sold in every other country? Will we now enter an era of foreign ministries throwing a fit if some shopper in Mozambique decides to sell a product that hurts sensitivities?

Thankfully, the great powers of the world are not so touchy about their flags — their pride is not hurt by practices prevalent in the free market, whose defining principle is demand-and-supply and the unwritten dharma is laissez faire. Their foreign ministers do not pull the diplomatic trigger because the flags of their countries are embossed on retail products.

The Union Jack, for instance, is available in every form, on every conceivable product not just in Canada through Amazon but also across stores in Great Britain. It is marketed as rugs, doormats, even as thongs, undergarments and vests. Hundreds of people buy them for daily use and as souvenirs. But, the UK never threatened to rescind visas of Amazon staff or throw out its own citizens for selling products embossed with their national flag.

Similarly, the US doesn't treat its flag as an extension of its ego. Its extant laws allow not just its use on clothes, household items — doormats with the Star and Stripes are available on Amazon websites and till last heard, outgoing secretary of state John Kerry had not broken out into a rash — but also burn it down during protests.

But, India, of course, is different. Here patriotism and nationalism are practiced more as rituals with symbolic acts rather than as an ideology or way of life; they are meant more for public display — like showing off a new car or a mobile — than as a virtue that is lived in daily life. Naturally, in this culture of pop patriotism, the flag turns into a sacred entity that could be violated if sold as a doormat in some other country. And diplomacy turns into a bullying tactic aimed at demanding respect through threats, instead of earning it.

Perhaps Swaraj doesn't know this because nobody pointed it out to her on Twitter. Several retailers use the tricolour, the Indian map and insignia related to the Indian nation with their products. The tricolour, like the Union Jack and flags of several other countries, is sold online on thongs and panties, it is embossed on beer mugs, whiskey glasses and, well, on undergarments with words that may shock sanskari Indians. (On a lighter note, would it be more offensive to let someone wear tricolour briefs or to ask them to remove them?)

So, will the foreign ministry now trawl the internet, scan every online store to bully retailer into withdrawing products that hurt our pride, sensibilities. And why stop at just online policing? Would special squads from India would now be dispatched to every country to check if the Indian flag is not being misused by brick-and-mortar retailers. Will we now have a branch tracking only tricolour undies and doormats?

Mallya, Modi and Dawood can relax. The Indian foreign ministry now has a whole new laundry list of priorities.

Hey you! Yes you, the one hawking a pair of tricolour panties in Mogadishu! Beware! The Indian foreign minister is watching you.