Two Indian chief ministers fight on social media

It all started when the chief minister of Mizoram, Zoramthanga, tweeted this at 1:50 pm and 2:53 pm on July 26th.

He had tagged India’s home minister, the home minister’s office’s handle, the prime minister’s office’s handle, the chief minister of Assam, deputy commissioner, and the police of Cachar district in Assam. He even added a hashtag to his tweet: #MizoramAssamBorderTension

Now, while there was an actual border tension between the two Indian states of Mizoram and Assam, the fact that the chief minister of an Indian state chose to frame it in a particular way (his perspective) to literally everyone in the world, makes the border skirmish something of interest to anyone and everyone reading his tweet. Every reader of his tweet then becomes a participant of the border skirmish between two Indian states.

And because he tweeted it first, the chief minister of Assam was forced to respond on the same platform. Himanta Biswa Sarma, the chief minister of Assam, quote tweeted Zoramthanga an hour later and tagged the home minister and the prime minister’s office’s handle!

Now, things have escalated in a public manner.

If there was no social media, the way this would have played would have been different. The chief ministers would have directly called the home minister and spoken to him, asking the same thing they did via their tweets. And that would have remained between those people without the public being roped in as voyeuristic participants.

From that beginning, things went from bad to worse, with both chief ministers steadily escalating the tension that was already unfolding on the ground in the border between the states.

What should have been something that the broader public would have known from news channels (radio, TV, and newspapers the next day), turned into a quasi-live stream through the perspectives of the two chief ministers.

To some extent, it is understandable why the chief ministers were indulging in this very public verbal scuffle. It was a performance played for their constituents in the state, to show that they are on the side of the people of the state and are actively doing something about the situation on the ground.

Unfortunately, how the constituents, and the general public, would see it as is something both chief ministers don’t seem to have comprehended.

Given the tweets’ perspectives, they seem open invitations to the audience to pick a side and assume that the other side is wrong. Obviously, unless both chief ministers don’t spend time understanding how it started on the ground, they wouldn’t be able to come to a conclusion. They both have sought a neutral investigation into the incident now which is intended to find out the same – the cause and how it escalated. So, before that, if they take every stream of thought public via Twitter, that is both irresponsible and severely short-sighted. Sure, they could be building a perception in the voters’ minds as ‘hands-on leaders who had a point of view’ but that would come at a severe cost, of alienating the people of both states against each other, and worse, instigating them against each other.

If the same was being shared as part of news by the mainstream media, the journalistic apparatus tempers things down by reporting the happenings and also adding the historical context of what has transpired between the two states in the past. The reportage would tend to not seek polarising opinions (though today’s TV news channels are horrendous in India, consciously choosing to take sides and polarise people – a classic divide-and-rule strategy to win eyeballs at any cost).

After such heated messages shared with the world, when the same chief ministers choose to play it down by saying that they have spoken to each other, or they request for peace on the ground, it sounds so utterly hollow for the simple reason that they had also fanned the anger with their public, impulsive commentary for narrow voter gains.

The bottom-line is quite evident, based purely on common sense: these are powerful people with phenomenal reach for their voices. They need to realize the power of what they say, that too directly from their own selves. To use that power to impulsively live-stream their views, and worse, do the equivalent of sending an email to the boss (Delhi) with a CC to the entire world, is extremely irresponsible. This is very similar to two people having a heated argument over email while many other people are cc’d – it’s less an argument and more of a performance of one-upmanship.

That it continued right into the second day was a shame.

I’m reasonably sure the home ministry would have advised both chief ministers to take their acrimonious outburst offline, but that they chose to continue the tirade into subsequent days says a lot about the sorry state of things in this situation.

My only hope is that other state’s chief ministers do not take this as precedence to indulge in such behavior, thereby misusing the power of their voices so flippantly.

They did smoke the peace pipe in public eventually, but on the back of the earlier visible and vocal, impulsive bluster, this seems insincere, after considerable damage in terms of perceptions and polarisation.

Also, the irony that they did not choose to speak with each other in private and offer a unified call to peace in public is very, very disappointing. If they assumed that speaking to each other and coordinating their powerful voices to pacify the anger is a sign of weakness, that is a very, very gravely terrible situation.

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