News story by Elizabeth Roche
New Delhi: If all goes to plan, Mumbai-born Ashley Tellis will be the new US ambassador to India.
Tellis and current incumbent, 48-year-old Indian origin US ambassador Richard Verma, are among an expanding list of Indian-origin diplomats—representing Western countries like the US, the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada in Asia’s third-largest economy and the country of their ancestors’ birth—once relegated to the margins as a “basket case for charity”.
Australia is represented by High Commissioner Harinder Sidhu in New Delhi and Canada’s envoy is Nadir Patel.
The UK has Kumar Iyer in Mumbai, who holds the designation of British deputy High Commissioner with responsibility for Western India and Director General, economic trade and investment.
Australia’s Sidhu was a senior career officer with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and served in Moscow and Damascus before coming to India. One of Sidhu’s predecessors was Peter Varghese who was also of Indian origin.
Patel was assistant deputy minister for corporate planning, finance and information technology, and as chief financial officer at Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development in Canada before taking up his post. Patel’s appointment as envoy to New Delhi in January 2015 predates the election of Justin Trudeau as prime minister of Canada. Trudeau’s cabinet boasts of at least four Indian-origin cabinet ministers including one as minister of defence.
Iyer was in the UK Treasury department before taking up his post in Mumbai in July 2013.
Former Indian ambassador to the US and ex-high commissioner to London Lalit Mansingh said these appointments were reflective of “the approach of Western nations towards Indians and India”.
He said a large number of Indians had migrated to the US in the 1960s. But the contributions of this group came into prominence in the 1990s “when it was noticed that they were the highest educated ethnic group in the US, the Indian-American community had the highest median income and they became politically very active,” Mansingh said.
India’s economic transformation had also changed its profile in the world, he said, adding that prior to the 1990s, India was seen as a “basket case” where “poverty was unending”.
“India was regarded as an object of charity and not a strategic partner,” Mansingh said, citing what Stephen Cohen, senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings think tank said about India in a book he authored.
Countries like Mauritius have mostly sent Indian origin diplomats to India as high commissioner—not uncommon given the large numbers of people of Indian origin there.
But in terms of setting a trend among Western countries, it seems it was Australia that first broke with tradition and decided to appoint Rakesh Ahuja as deputy High Commissioner to India in the late 1990s.
In an article written for the news agency Indo-Asian News Service last year, timed to coincide with Harinder Sidhu’s takeover as Australian High Commissioner in New Delhi, Ahuja recalls that “a western power being represented in India in any capacity by a non-Anglo Saxon/Celtic was unthinkable just 20 odd years ago—until the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs broke the mold by appointing me, India born, as Australia’s Deputy High Commissioner to New Delhi.”
“Overall, my selection was perceived at best as presenting a new visage of Australian diplomacy on the Asian stage and, at worst, as the Foreign Secretary currying favour with the ruling Labor Government, which was unequivocally committed to multiculturalism in public service,” Ahuja said in his article.
A measure of the increasing profile of the Indian American community in politics is the fact that five Americans of Indian origin were sworn into the US Congress last week. They include 52-year-old Kamala Harris whose mother was from India and father from Jamaica. She was sworn in as the Senator from California—the first Indian-American to have ever served in the Senate.
Among the others who made it to the US Congress were Ami Bera, Raja Krishnamoorthi, Ro Khanna and Pramila Jayapal.
US President Barack Obama set a record of sorts when he appointed many Indian-origin Americans to key positions. These included Nisha Desai Biswal as US Assistant Secretary of State, Rajiv Shah as administrator of US Agency for International Development between 2010 and 2015, Arun M. Kumar as Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Global Markets and Director General of the US and Foreign Commercial Service, Puneet Talwar as Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs and career diplomat Atul Keshap as US Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
While Biswal’s appointment as Assistant Secretary of State for south and central Asian affairs in the US State Department is one of the highest ranks of appointment for an Indian American, US President-elect Donald Trump seems to have done one better—appointing Nimrata “Nikki” Haley as the US ambassador to the UN.
Prior to Obama and Trump, George H. Bush as president had appointed Joy Cherian as commissioner in the Equal Opportunities Commission in the US, Mansingh said.
“This is certainly a recognition of the capabilities of the Indian communities in these countries (the US, Canada, the UK and Australia)—countries that are dominated by Western civilization sending people of Indian origin as envoy to India,” Mansingh said.