Over a year ago, 52-year-old Navdeep Suri had an epiphany. His realisation occurred when his 25-year-old daughter, as perhaps just like another young Indian, expressed scepticism about the efficacy of Suri’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). For a seasoned diplomat, it was a frustrating moment.
“I realised that we were simply not doing enough to reach out to the 25 years and below category of Indians,” says Suri, joint secretary in charge of MEA’s public diplomacy. “How can I influence the country’s largest demographic group, if I am not present in their place?” he remembers thinking.
That was the genesis of the MEA’s move beyond its high walls into the social media platforms and to become more accessible through the tools of the 21st century—Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and their ilk.
The timing was portentous; 2010 was the year when Twitter picked up in India. It had also become part of the Indian lexicon, thanks chiefly to the obsessive media attention on Shashi Tharoor. As a minister of state for external affairs, Tharoor had been a prolific tweeter, even becoming the source of several media controversies. But he resigned in April 2010 amidst a public hullabaloo; Twitter, by extension social media, gained notoriety by association. It would not have been surprising if the controversial tag had kept the MEA away from Twitter. Instead, it has pioneered the use of social media by an official agency in India.
On July 8, 2010, ‘Indiandiplomacy’ sent out its first tweet—“Official Twitter account of Public Diplomacy Division of Ministry of External Affairs, India”. It was delivered into cyberspace by 30-year-old IFS officer Abhay Kumar from his rather outdated official computer—just three days after he had joined the division. Kumar had been handpicked by Suri to start the social media initiative from his previous posting in St. Petersburg. “I had some background in getting people together in online forums. On that basis, I came here,” says Kumar.
After two initial tweets on the Twitter account, Kumar went on a vacation to his hometown Nalanda. Meanwhile, the novel presence of the ministry had started to make waves among the Indian Twitterati. “There was a lot of media interest. When I logged in at Nalanda, I was surprised at the kind of response,” recalls Kumar.
In the last one year, ‘Indiandiplomacy’ has garnered 12,000 followers. It has been followed up with separate Twitter accounts operated by the official spokesperson (vprakashmea), then the Foreign Secretary (foreignsecnrao), and the Additional Secretary in charge of passport consular and visas (aspcv).
The Facebook page had been a bit slow to pick up in the first few months, but has now over 5,000 followers. More importantly, over 50 Indian high commissions, embassies and consulates have now opened their own pages on Facebook and others are waiting in the wings.
The website (www.indiandiplomacy.in ), launched in December 2010, the first government website on a web 2.0 platform, has had 4.2 million visits. The YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/indiandiplomacy) has uploaded the short-form version of over 170 documentaries, which it has commissioned over the years.
The biggest supporter within the ministry of these initiatives, which has been opposed by more conservative mandarins, was then Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, who understood the power of the medium to deliver the message instantaneously. She opened her own account in February, and it became a runaway success immediately, gathering over 20,000 followers.
Around the same time, the ban on accessing social media websites from South Block’s internal network was also lifted. They had been blocked over fears that it could be a way for hackers to gain entry into the secure computer of the ministry.
“One year on, I am beginning to see the synergies take place,” feels Suri. “We are trying to create paradigm on how the Government should be using social media, compared to an individual.”
In fact, Kumar has now been trying to drag other parts of the Government into the 21st century. “We have been attempting to convince various institutions under the Ministry of Culture to open Facebook pages or come on Twitter as we think that they can help in further projecting India’s soft power,” says Kumar.
The journey had not been easy. The anonymity of the social media platforms, especially Twitter, means that there is a lot of gratuitous barrage of abuse, most of them unrelated to the domain of the MEA. “We have a simple policy: Ignore, but do not block,” he says.
When asked whether he has been able to convince all his colleagues in the ministry to the virtues of social media, Suri replies simply, “It’s a work in progress.”