Sushma Swaraj's use of soft power against Amazon was unnecessary, heavy-handed

Sushma Swaraj, just exercised India's soft power, in a manner that China frequently does when it concerns Tibet and Taiwan.

A few days ago, The New York Times app was taken off the China App Store after a request by Chinese authorities to do so. However, the app is available for download on app stores elsewhere. This closed one of the last few options for Chinese readers to freely access The New York Times in China without having to use hacks such as VPNs or proxies.

For the past few years now, China has been using its soft power, especially the strength of its market access, to have companies toe the line. Internet companies like Google have faced increasing pressure to conform in order to have access to Chinese markets. In 2010, Google took the brave step of refusing to censor searches in China in response to pressure from the Chinese government. In 2014, Google's main services such as Gmail, Google search and Chrome were no longer accessible in China.

 Sushma Swarajs use of soft power against Amazon was unnecessary, heavy-handed

File image of Sushma Swaraj PTI

Companies in China are forced to comply with Chinese censorship regulations in order to have access to the world's largest population. Apple, for example, may have had its App Store completely blocked in China had it not complied with the request to block The New York Times. Many US companies, like Facebook, Google and others have taken a strong stance in favour of free speech and have refused to enter the Chinese market as a result of this. However, there are now rumours that even Facebook may kowtow to Beijing.

In 2014, China once again used its diplomatic prowess to ensure that the Dalai Lama could not attend a Nobel Peace Summit in South Africa.

China uses this soft power to pursue a very definite foreign and domestic policy angle. Namely a 'One-China' policy that preserves its one-party system of government and continues its totalitarian form of government.

Which brings us neatly to India. On Wednesday, the country's foreign minister used India's soft power, and threatened to deny Amazon officials visas and deport those who are already in India, if Amazon Canada didn't take down a doormat that had India's National Flag on it.

Let me be very clear, I completely understand the foreign minister's sentiment. A National Flag on a doormat is absurdly offensive to me. The flag is a very important symbol not just to me, but to a billion of my fellow Indians. But the question comes, was this an appropriate instance, to so blatantly exercise India's soft power?

The Ministry of External Affairs could have asked the Indian High Commission in Ottawa, Canada to have a quite phone call with Amazon Canada and put the matter to rest. There was absolutely no need to put it up on social media for all the world to see.  Soft power is delicate and needs to be exercised carefully. It is not something that needs to be thumped around. Usually, when soft power is exercised, the attention is not on the country that exercised the soft power but it should be on the person who was subject to the exercise of that power.

The headlines should be reading 'Amazon buckles under Indian pressure and takes down offensive article' and the stories should have almost no mention of the fact that the Ministry of External Affairs intervened in the matter.  We lose our credibility in the world, if we intervene in such situations, that may be misunderstood by the global community at large.

It represents a failure in image projection and image management. China, on the other hand, and despite its far more devious use of soft power, does brilliantly with this. India has a lot of potential to use its soft power to not just have other nations act in our foreign and domestic interests but to have major multinationals do so as well. But if we have to use our soft power, we need to be a lot more tactful about how we use it.

Updated Date: Jan 12, 2017 13:26:28 IST