When Tweets Trump Diplomacy

NEW DELHI – Diplomacy often witnesses unusual spats. There was the Pig and Potato War of 1859, the Affair of the Dancing Lamas in 1924, and the Bogotá Bracelet incident of 1970, to name just a few. But few were more surprising than the just-concluded Episode of the Offensive Doormats.

The e-commerce giant Amazon – which has lately been cultivating India as the next frontier of its global expansion, reflected in plans to invest $5 billion in the country – was recently startled by a series of intemperate tweets from Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. In just a few 140-character messages, Swaraj denounced the company and threatened to cancel its employees’ visas and refuse visas to its executives in the future.

What provoked Swaraj’s outburst was a Twitter user’s complaint to her that the Amazon Canada website offered for sale doormats depicting the Indian flag. The notion that dirty shoes would be wiped on a representation of the Indian flag had outraged the tweeter, Atul Bhobe, who contacted – and found an advocate in – Swaraj.

Amazon was swift to respond. After clarifying that the offending doormats were technically being offered by a third-party supplier, not Amazon itself, the company removed them from the Amazon Canada website and “implemented measures to ensure that these products could not be sold on any of our other marketplaces or websites.” Amazon’s India country manager offered an apology to Swaraj for “hurting Indian sensibilities” and, recalling the company’s $5 billion investment commitment, reiterated Amazon’s dedication to the country.