Dozens of car buyers posted their intention to cancel orders for Hyundai cars to punish the company while urging support for local brands like Tata Motors and Mahindra & Mahindra. (Representational Image/ Twitter)
Earlier this week, on Februay 6, India’s Twitter space was abuzz with strong reactions over a post from the "HyundaiPakistanOfficial" Twitter handle supporting the so-called "struggle for freedom" in Jammu and Kashmir on the Pakistan-sponsored "Kashmir Solidarity Day".
On the social media, Hyundai Motors faced calls for a boycott of its cars in India along with demands of an apology. Dozens of car buyers posted their intention to cancel orders for Hyundai cars to punish the company while urging support for local brands like Tata Motors and Mahindra & Mahindra. The initial response from Hyundai Motors India said: "The unsolicited social media post linking Hyundai Motors India is offending our unparalleled commitment and service to the great country (India)." However, this was found to be tepid and unsatisfactory.
The friendly South Koreans were taken by surprise and their ambassador in New Delhi was called by the external affairs ministry on February 7 and the "strong displeasure of the government on the unacceptable social media post was conveyed". It was stressed this matter concerned India’s territorial integrity, on which there could be no compromise.
The foreign office spokesman added that "we expected the company to take appropriate action to properly address the issue". The MEA’s statement also pointed out that while India welcomed investments by foreign companies in various sectors, "it is also expected that such companies or their affiliates will refrain from false and misleading comments on matters of sovereignty and territorial integrity".
Moving swiftly for damage control, Hyundai India issued a statement on February 8 clarifying that the "unauthorised Kashmir-related post" was issued by an "independently owned distributor in Pakistan from its own Twitter account". The statement rejected the distributor’s unauthorised tweet and their "inappropriate action". The company had the posts deleted and promised there would be "processes to prevent any future recurrence". Hyundai India also "deeply regretted any offence caused to the people of India".
The South Korean government, a special strategic partner of India, fully understood the gravity of the issue and its foreign minister Chung Eui-yong called external affairs minister S. Jaishankar to convey regret over the episode.
It later transpired that similar offensive tweets had emanated from the Pakistani subsidiaries of several multinational companies, hinting at a concerted effort by Pakistani agencies to drag these foreign companies into an essentially bilateral issue. Such tweets came from Pakistan-based associates of American companies like KFC, Pizza Hut and Dominos; Schwab of Germany; Honda, Suzuki and Isuzu of Japan and Procon of the UK along with Hyundai, Kia and Daewoo of South Korea and FAW Trucks and ABC-Alhaj Bus Company from China.
It is learnt that all the companies involved have removed the offensive tweets, except the Chinese companies. Subsequently, KFC issued its "deep apology" and Pizza Hut clarified that it "does not condone, support or agree" with the post. Suzuki Motors stated that it "deeply regrets the hurt to sentiments that such insensitive communications have caused". KIA Motors of South Korea said it has taken "strict measures to avoid such misuse of KIA brand identity" and would put in place "processes to prevent a recurrence".
This coordinated burst of anti-India tweets from the Twitter handles of Pakistan-based distributors of MNCs suggests the hidden hand of a Pakistan state agency. It also reveals the prevailing Pakistani mindset of politicising normal international trade and investment. It reflects an insensitivity to the larger interests of Pakistan’s trading and investment partners, who are global and have robust business with India. This also negates the much-touted primacy given to geo-economics in the recently released New Security Policy of Pakistan.
For any global company, India provides a much bigger, more extensive market than Pakistan. Total South Korean exports to Pakistan in 2020 were less than $900 million, compared to exports to India that exceeded $12 billion.
This episode points to Pakistan’s frustration over its abject failure to internationalise the Kashmir matter. Pakistan’s strident reaction to the constitutional changes introduced by the Indian Parliament in Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019 had no resonance outside Pakistan. In August 2020, Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi had publicly lamented that the Saudi Arabia-led "Organisation of Islamic Cooperation" had not agreed to Pakistan’s request to convene a meeting of its council of foreign ministers on Kashmir.
The justified strong reaction of the people and government of India must alert multinational companies to ensure that social media is not misused to exploit their brand name by any business partner inimical to India in Pakistan, China or anywhere else. By their very nature, multinational companies operate in various geographies and often in countries which may be mutually hostile. They, therefore, steer clear of any controversial political, religious or racial issue. To prevent any recurrence of such a distasteful episode, two measures need to be taken by the companies that have been embarrassed by their Pakistan associates. One, KFC, Hyundai Motors, etc must penalise their offending business partners in Pakistan by terminating their distributorship or franchise.
Also, in their contracts with Pakistani business partners, there should be a binding clause that their public advertisements as well as social media handles would not have any reference to Kashmir or any other internal or external issues involving India.
India and South Korea will put this unfortunate chain of events behind them and move on. But the desperate attempts by Pakistan to pull in outside parties to feed their obsession with Kashmir needs to be robustly condemned by the corporate world as well as by the governments of the countries which have business relations with both India and Pakistan.