Private Indian Couple Dedicates Careers to Public Service

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Officially, he may be retired from the Indian Administrative Service, the civil service arm of the government's executive branch, but Ajay Shankar, the husband of Indian Ambassador Meera Shankar, remains highly involved in policy issues. And he's just as comfortable and knowledgeable as his wife is in discussing the intricacies of India's progress. This year, as a public policy scholar with the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center, he is researching the topic of India's low-carbon growth challenge — taking on what he admits is a "huge mission."

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Credit: Embassy of India
Indian Ambassador Meera Shankar and her husband Ajay Shankar

He said India would like to be a responsible international stakeholder, "and yet still have our people live well. The question is how to overcome poverty but emit less carbon dioxide. We are a hot country — most people still use only fans in their homes, and we do not yet have air conditioning in most of our buildings," Shankar explained.

"I am looking at solar energy for developing countries like ours. But we are very sensitive about affordability. We need to bring costs down. We also want to leap frog ahead. The planet cannot just continue to handle what we are asking it to do."

He added: "We hope that, like with computers and mobile phones, we can bring prices down with economies of scale. Our mobile phone services are among the cheapest in the world and, yet, one of the best."

Shankar — well versed in discussing a range of subjects, from technology to foreign investment to urban planning — even mused on the thriftiness of most Indians — which he said has been a distinct advantage for the nation as a whole.

"Everyone learned to text because it costs less," he pointed out. "Missed calls are used frequently. When you finish a day's work and need to call home, or you need to call your driver, you can call them but they don't need to answer. It's like the game people used to play when loved ones called person to person to signal that they arrived safely and then hung up."

A career member of India's civil service since 1973, Ajay Shankar has extensive government experience, particularly in the industrial, energy and urban development fields. He most recently served in India's Commerce and Industry Ministry, where he was secretary of the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion from 2007 to the end of 2009.

During that time, Shankar implemented a plan for the Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor project, further liberalized policies to encourage foreign direct investment, and chaired the Committee on Indigenization of Solar Energy Technology. Perhaps most notably though, as secretary he also played a critical role in crafting India's stimulus package that guided the country successfully through the global economic crisis, which caused only a modest downturn in India's otherwise steady growth.

"We in India were fortunate," he told The Washington Diplomat. "We didn't have a recession and we are almost back to our normal growth trajectory, which was 9 percent before the crisis. We are inching back toward it with growth this year likely to be about 8.6 percent. Our banks had no exposure to toxic loans as they did in Europe and the United States. Our growth is based on domestic demand in India. Although we are open to trade and investment and have free and open markets, India is not dependent on exports for driving growth."

As a result, Shankar said, "we don't have any big adjustments to make. We are not part of the global problem of imbalances. Our economy and exchange rates are market driven."

His country of nearly 1.2 billion, the world's largest democracy (and second in population only to China), is also quite driven — and diverse, with 28 separate states, 24 distinct languages, 1,600 dialects and a mix of ethnicities and religions, including Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs.

"India is a complex and diverse country," Shankar said. "It doesn't fit into any stereotype. Change in India is so rapid. In the early decades after independence in 1947, India was seen as a country with extreme poverty and enormous problems. But with our democratic system and freedoms, our people — with hard work, entrepreneurship and traditional values — are creating better lives.

"It is the democratic process that has driven public policy," he added. "Economic reforms and liberalization that introduced competition and greater engagement with the global economy have delivered good results and have popular support."

Proudly rattling off a list of statistics and accomplishments, Shankar noted that from 2003 to 2008, foreign direct investment increased eight-fold. "Foreign investment, which began in IT, is now broad-based across manufacturing, telecom, hotels, pharmaceuticals and heavy engineering," he said.

Another source of pride: "We have a booming car market. We are the global leader in small, fuel-efficient cars. The new Toyota Etios was designed and introduced first in the Indian market. While every global car company is in India, the small carmaker Suzuki is the market leader. Our Tata produces the Nano, which gets 40 miles to a gallon in the city and sells for only $2,500."

Despite India's tremendous strides, the emerging powerhouse still faces tremendous obstacles. For example, that same foreign direct investment Shankar mentioned fell more than 31 percent in 2010 as investors looked to other developing nations, in part because of the government's ongoing problems with corruption, bureaucracy and inefficiency. On a more basic level, the government still needs to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. In fact, some 80 percent of Indians live on less than $2 a day — more than double the same poverty rate in China.

Shankar acknowledges that India must confront "critical" economic challenges — chief among them taming inflation and the fiscal deficit — while pushing for more "inclusive growth" so that the nation's economic successes are better spread out among its citizens.

On that front, another social problem is the massive migration of India's rural poor to its already-overcrowded cities and slums. As a distinguished fellow at the Energy and Resources Institute in India (TERI), Shankar studied the country's rapid urbanization and how to design better cities, as well as ways that the government could "nudge the economy and the people" into better urban environments, he said.

As joint secretary in the Ministry of Power, Shankar also played a key role in India's Electricity Act of 2003 that aimed to transform the country's power sector with a new liberal regulatory framework. And as chief executive officer of the Greater Noida Industrial Development Authority, he was responsible for the development of one of the most attractive industrial townships on the outskirts of New Delhi.

It is interesting to note that in India, senior central government public servants are repeatedly "on loan" to the country's different states and may move back and forth several times as a unique way of giving the states a sense of participation in running the central government. Shankar comes from Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state — the size of Germany — which is located just south of Delhi. "I am from Allahabad where I went to university and later taught. My hometown is known for being the center of the freedom struggle from Britain," he noted.

Although he dissects economic and public policy issues with ease, Shankar is hesitant to discuss anything he deems too personal — a trait he seems to share with his no-nonsense wife Meera, who previously served as India's envoy to Germany before becoming ambassador to the United States in 2009. Today, India's high-powered couple in Washington is all business and diplomacy — and they've become very active on the political, social and cultural front — but it's clear they have also chosen to live as private a life as possible despite their high-profile careers.

The two met shortly after they both successfully passed the rigorous exam to enter into either India's prestigious Foreign or Administrative Service, which they each joined in 1973.

"My wife and I met and got to know each other at the training Academy in Mussoorie, in the lower Himalayas — beautiful surroundings," he said, smiling. "It was a good time and a good place to meet," he added softly, not offering any other details before he took another sip of tea.

Although they knew that her work in the Foreign Service could entail traveling all over the world, the couple made a conscious decision to reside in New Delhi as much as possible to create a stable family environment.

What Ajay Shankar likes most about this current period in his professional life is having the opportunity "to sit back, reflect and then write. It's a qualitative transformation." He now writes on policy issues for two leading Indian publications, Economic Times and Business Standard.

Their only child, 26-year-old Priya, is following in her father's footsteps as a policy researcher with a think tank in London — even though "we tried to encourage her about the Foreign Service," Shankar noted. Today, the family stays in touch by phone, e-mail and Skype. "My wife spent a bit more time with her than I did when she was growing up, but today Priya, at 26, is more like a friend to us," he said.

Priya will visit her parents in Washington this Easter, when she combines the spring holiday with the extra few days she has off due to the upcoming royal wedding in London in late April.

With the little leisure time he and his wife have, they love to read, listen to both Indian and Western music, watch movies, and take walks together in Rock Creek Park, which borders their residence grounds.

"My wife prefers fiction and contemporary history and politics while I am more inclined to read biographies and economic works. We both like reading some of our Indian writers who are now writing so well in English," said Shankar, noting that he especially enjoys Nobel prize-winning economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, Pulitzer-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri, Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh and British-Indian novelist and essayist Salman Rushdie.

"Netflix is a great blessing.... But seeing a movie in a big hall makes a big difference," added Shankar, whose current film favorites include "The King's Speech," "The Social Network" and "True Grit."

The Shankars were posted to Washington on a prior occasion, while she served as commercial minister at the embassy from 1991 to 1995, during which time he earned a master's degree in economics from Georgetown University. Now in their second posting, Shankar says he sees that India enjoys a much higher profile today in the nation's capital.

"There is an increasing understanding of India and more families have Indian friends," he said. "Washington is more diverse, more cosmopolitan than before. There are definitely more Indian restaurants and more yoga centers."

This time as India's top diplomatic couple, the Shankars are naturally much more involved and visible in the cultural and charitable life of Washington. They are the honorary patrons of this year's Washington Performing Arts Society (WPAS) Gala and Silent Auction on April 2, as they were for the recent annual CARE Conference and International Women's Day Celebration that also featured former first lady Laura Bush and Melinda Gates.

And the Shankars personally relished attending every possible performance they could during "maximum INDIA" — the spectacular three-week festival of Indian arts and culture held last month at the Kennedy Center.

"I couldn't believe it was the same Kennedy Center. It was transformed into a museum and an art gallery which became a slice of magical India," Shankar said. "It was extraordinary. We attended everything we could."

For Meera Shankar, the connection to Indian arts and culture is not only a personal interest but also a part of her professional background. Earlier in her career, she oversaw all of India's cultural diplomacy as head of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations in New Delhi, which was a co-sponsor of "maximum INDIA" along with the Kennedy Center and the Indian Embassy.

Now, as ambassador here, Shankar said the festival not only offered her country terrific public exposure, but it was a deeply moving, significant cultural showcase.

"This festival provided a window into India's rich and diverse cultural tradition — be it in dance, music, theater or film," she said. "I also hope that it will convey a flavor of the immense explosion of cultural ferment and creativity with India's opening up to the world."

Not surprisingly, their thoughts complement each other's. Ajay Shankar told us that the festival introduced Washington to "a flavor of India's ancient and contemporary culture, with its enormous variety, color and creativity — indeed a glimpse of India's soul."

 


 

About the Author

Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and lifestyle columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.

Last Edited on June 24, 2014

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