By NIMMI RAGHUNATHAN
It’s a busy job to be the Indian Consul General, and more so in an area with a thriving and demanding community – American Indians in California and other West Coast states want their visas yesterday and proposals business sanctioned today. Through it all is the serene demeanor of Dr. TVNagendra Prasad, India’s representative in San Francisco, observed from afar at various events, sporting a faint smile and patiently answering questions.
This year turned out to be even busier with India’s 75e anniversary: if the consulate does not organize or support a celebratory event, then the weekend counts others who want Prasad’s presence.
The Foreign Service Officer is equipped for the job having served since 1993 in a variety of roles and locations including Ashgabat and Bern, Thimpu and London. Even navigating the varied cultures, Prasad is acutely aware of his own roots which are in Telangana where he studied and obtained his doctorate in agriculture. The community is just as likely to see him spawning for India with VCs as in a temple.
The CG comes across as self-effacing, rarely using the “I”, and seemingly always aware of its official role. Always a diplomat, he simply avoids questions from West India which he dislikes (see Delhi and visa response below) and left for races where there is an opportunity to exalt India (mostly edited here for space):
Q: What was the response to the 75e anniversary of traditional America?
A: When the Prime Minister announcedAzadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav” in March 2021, there was an enthusiastic response. Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis joined us to celebrate our National Day Reception in 2021 and the iconic San Francisco City Hall was lit up in tricolor. The Consulate kicked off the celebrations with an event on India’s “Technological Evolution” featuring high profile speakers; we also encountered and recalled the sacrifices made by Ghadarites at the historic Ghadar Memorial Hall in San Francisco. Most Indian associations celebrated their annual events using the [email protected] logo looped with the consulate. Encouragingly, the celebrations included young people raised in the United States and local communities who learned about the historic event. Closer to August 15, we are organizing a Tiranga Yatra across the Golden Gate Bridge in addition’Har Ghar Tiranga.Several important programs are in preparation until August 2023 in different cities on the West Coast.
Q: In your meetings with North American politicians, what was the main impression they had of American Indians?
A: In my interactions with various elected officials, from the Governor to local community leaders, it is clear that the community commands a great deal of respect and is known for its entrepreneurial spirit, law-abiding nature, and hard work. Not only is the community appreciated, but its influence is also recognized. It’s not just the Bay Area’s tech community where so many businesses are run by Native Americans, but even the wealthy farming community of the Central Valley has proven to have an important voice. The presence of elected leaders at community events is only one indication of the popularity of Native Americans in the region.
Q: What are the top three things you hope to accomplish during your time at SF?
A: As Consul General, the primary task is to provide effective consular services to the 1.5 million strong Native American community in 11 states and Guam. We have done this with awareness-raising activities, the simplification of procedures, the holding of consular camps, and so on. I always look towards greater community awareness; most people I meet mention that they would like to give back to their country. So that they can engage with India in a substantial way, I do a live radio show every quarter, to keep them updated on developments in India. Our role is that of a facilitator: we strive to promote Indian products and the special interests of each Indian state. We also work with politicians and local officials to clarify certain issues and developments from time to time.
Q: American universities are pushing more and more towards India. What role, if any, does the consulate have in relation to education?
A: Education is a very important and crucial sector for bilateral cooperation. With the announcement of the National Education Policy in 2020, many opportunities have opened up for foreign universities in India including the establishment of centers. This interaction has been very intense over the past year, with our Ambassador in Washington meeting with several university leaders across the United States.
Related is the fact that at any given time we have over 200,000 Indian students in the United States.
Q: The inevitable question about visas. To what extent are the consulates bothered by the dictates of Delhi?
A: As you know, most companies in the Bay Area have offices in India which provide various services to the main company in the United States. In order not to hinder their work during the Covid, we continued to issue work and business visas. Only tourist visas were not issued during the severe Covid period, as all other countries did. Regarding community visas, we have kept our office open even on weekends during this sensitive time to serve those who needed to make emergency visits to India.
Q: You have served in countries ranging from democracies, autocracies and monarchies. How does this affect the role of an Indian diplomat in building ties? For example, is it heavier in a democracy and more opaque in different systems?
A: Diplomats are expected to work in any type of political system. We are always looking for areas of collaboration. I’m sure you ask this question after reading my posts, but let me say that the political system has played a very small role when it comes to cementing the relationship.
Q: You were in Tehran. Is there a recognition of ancient ties between India and Iran or is India seen as Hindu and different?
A: India and Iran shared historical relations and as you know Persian was the court language during Mughal times. We share culture and language and at one time even a border. Please note that India is home to approximately 160 million Muslims, the second largest only after Indonesia. India and Iran also complement each other.
Q: You have a background in agriculture, does that come in handy when traveling to California? What did you see here that you wish India had, and do you think the US agricultural sector could benefit from India?
A: My agricultural background gives me a greater appreciation for California’s rich and diverse agricultural economy. Whether it’s oranges or nuts, California produce makes me think of broader possibilities for collaboration. Several Indian delegations came to observe farming practices, crop varieties and fruit and vegetable processing. Some states in India have shown interest in avocado cultivation. This is such an important sector that I believe has great potential for the future when it comes to ensuring global food security.
Q: A message for the community…
A: Always preserve and pass on the rich and diverse culture of India to the next generation. I am happy that several community organizations have set up language schools, as well as the hundreds of music and dance schools that carry on our classical and folk traditions in this part of the world. As noted, the future of the world belongs to the Asian continent in general and to India in particular; young people will benefit from it. They will have many opportunities due to India’s growth history and vibrant democracy.
– A place, a thing, a memory in the United States that left an impact: Central Valley, where American Indian farmers have been so admirably successful, made it big.
– Countries you haven’t visited and would like: I still have to explore India thoroughly before leaving for other countries.
– Recommend a book or movie that would explain the Stan countries to us: No book or movie can make you grab the Stans. You have to visit these interesting places to understand them.
– Free time: Golf and cinema.
– How wife and son cope with the constant shifts of a diplomatic career: It’s really difficult. Hats off to my wife Padma who made my life easier in these various places thanks to her speed of adaptation. My son, despite various education systems from London-Bhutan-Delhi-Switzerland, got to MIT and Stanford. I think the exposure prepares them for the challenges.