Navdeep Suri


A Personal Profile

I was born in Amritsar in the north Indian state of Punjab in 1959 and spent my first 22 years in the same town, from kindergarten at the St. Francis School to a Masters degree in Economics from the local Guru Nanak University. University is also where I met my soul mate Mani in 1979. It took another five years of courtship before we got married in Amritsar in May 1984.

Arabic and more

After a short stint in the Indian public sector giant SAIL, I sat for the Indian Civil Services exam, qualified and joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1983. After completion of our initial training period in India, I had to select a foreign language. I opted for Arabic and that brought us on our first diplomatic assignment to Cairo in 1984. Arabic language classes at the American University in Cairo were accompanied by on-the-job training and a further year of work at the embassy’s press and culture office. This was followed by a three-year stint in Damascus and it is truly heartbreaking to see the state to which Syria has been reduced. We have the fondest memories of Damascus and Aleppo, two of the oldest, most historic cities on the planet. It was also the time of the first Gulf war that followed Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. We had already completed our tenure and our baggage had been shipped out when war broke. We spent the next two months in Damascus living out of our suitcases and monitoring the deteriorating situation.

Back to Economics

After those two initial assignments, I returned to Delhi in March 1991 and worked in the newly created "Economic Coordination Unit". India’s famous economic reforms came a few months later and gave us the opportunity to redefine India’s economic diplomacy. It was an exciting time, and I got closely associated with our efforts to project India as an investment destination. The first set of doing business with India brochures were produced by our department, along with a pioneering 5.25 inch floppy disk that contained essential features of the new policy regime. We also coordinated India's first ever investment promotion conferences in Singapore, Los Angeles and New York. They were, in a sense, a paradigm shift from reluctantly 'allowing' FDI to openly welcoming it.

I moved to the Indian Embassy in Washington DC in 1993 and was primarily responsible for liaising with the US Congress. Those were delicate times for India’s relations with the US and we often found ourselves up against well-organized Kashmiri and Khalistani lobbies. The emergence of a strong India Caucus in the House of Representatives during that period was a major milestone for the efforts of the Indian American community to become a force for a better bilateral relationship.

The Call of Africa

The hectic, 24/7 activity of DC was followed by the more sedate environs of Tanzania where we arrived in 1997 to take the number two position at the Indian mission in Dar Es Salaam. We were there during the passing away of Julius Nyerere, truly one of Africa’s great statesmen and one who had a special affection for India. Dar was a tough place in those days with fairly basic medical facilities and limited availability of a range of essential goods and services. The first few months were, in particular, plagued by water scarcity and 18 hours a day power cuts. But we settled down in a short while and made friendships that will last a lifetime. Looking back, the wonders of Serengeti and Zanzibar seem more than fair compensation for the tough living conditions and our family developed an enduring relationship with the great Savannah, the incredible wildlife and the joy of open spaces.

Media Matters

I moved to London in 2000 and worked as spokesperson and head of the press office at the Indian High Commission in Aldwych. It meant working with the British media, the London-based representatives of Indian publications and TV channels, and the diverse publications that catered to the requirements of the large Indian community in UK. The period saw major media stories including the Gujarat riots, the terrorist attack on the Indian parliament and the nuclear stand-off between India and Pakistan and I became quite accustomed to the frequent trips to BBC TV and radio studios and also to Channel 4, Sky News and others in an effort to put across our perspective on complex issues. I also used this period to work on the translation of my grandfather Nanak Singh's classic Punjabi novel "Pavitra Paapi". The book was released under the title "Saintly Sinner" at Foyles and we had the privilege of listening to eminent film director Shekhar Kapur reading out some excerpts from the book.

Back to Africa

Upon completion of my stint in London, I returned to India and was the head of the West Africa division of the Ministry of External Affairs. This was a relatively neglected part of the world from India's diplomatic perspective and our relations with Francophone Africa were at a particularly low ebb. I traveled extensively through the 25 countries in the region ranging from Senegal in the north to Angola in the south and laid the groundwork for the re-opening of the Indian mission in Democratic Republic of Congo and the opening of new missions in Mali and Niger. This gave us an improved footprint in the region and also sent out a clear signal that India cares about its relationship with the region.

This was also an important juncture for India's economic diplomacy in the region. Working closely with CII, we laid the foundation of the first India-Africa Conclave on project partnerships. Over the years, this has become the dominant platform for enhancing our economic relationship with Africa. The annual event typically attracts over 500 African delegates including heads of state and government, ministers, bankers, chambers of commerce and corporate leaders.

It was also the time when we started to put in place the architecture of the India-Africa Forum summit and the ambitious Pan-African e-network project. Embodying the vision of President APJ Abdul Kalam, the network connects leading Indian universities and hospitals with African counterparts to provide the benefits of tele-education and tele-medicine.

Rainbow Nation

Towards the end of my Africa tenure, I was selected to go as consul general to Karachi and to reopen the consulate after a gap of over 11 years. Despite great hype and expectation in Karachi itself, the assignment fell victim to other developments in Indo-Pak relations and the consulate still remains shuttered. And I got reassigned as consul general in Johannesburg.

Johannesburg, or Josie as it is affectionately called by its residents, is the business and financial capital of South Africa, the headquarters of its fabled mining industry and the centre of its media giants. Greater Johannesburg is also home to over a quarter of a million Indians.

The three year assignment in Josie from 2006 to 2009 was, once again, a period to focus on economic and commercial work. South Africa is one of India's principal trading partners in Africa and an increasingly important source of minerals like coal.We started an annual doing business with India conference in collaboration with CII that became an instant hit and contributed to increased business to business linkages. We also persuaded the city of Johannesburg and major corporate players like Tata Africa to start supporting an annual Indian cultural festival themed 'Shared Histories: Celebrating India in South Africa.' It is a matter of pride that the festival is still continuing, emerging as a brand in its own right and becoming an integral part of South Africa's cultural calendar.

And it may sound clichéd but meeting Nelson Mandela was truly something special!

Social Media and beyond

Coming back to Delhi in 2009, I took charge of the relatively new Public Diplomacy division and was fortunate to attend a very useful conference on PD in Wilton Park and also attend the really intensive summer school at the Centre for Public Diplomacy in USC, Los Angeles. The two events provided me with both the theoretical framework and the first-hand knowledge of best practices to embark upon a series of changes that were considered quite radical in the context of our ministry and our government.

The first was to introduce Facebook, Twitter and other social media channels as an integral part of our PD efforts. All audio-visual material was digitized and a particularly useful partnership with Google helped us create a significant platform on YouTube. The Indian diplomacy accounts on Facebook,YouTube and Twitter were all created in 2010 and became the beacon for other government departments to embrace social media. The efforts won swift recognition and we received two important awards for most innovative use of e-governance in our work. Our department's expertize in a relatively new area was sought by others and one study placed us among the top five foreign offices in making effective use of social media.

The second was to supplement our traditional activities outside India with a conscious inward focus. In a democracy like ours, it is important to have a more informed discourse on foreign policy issues and to create greater awareness of the complexities. The MEA Lecture Series on India's Foreign Policy became an instant hit and has grown into a programme that involves utilizing the services of retired ambassadors on the university lecture circuit.

Equally important, we tried to mainstream public diplomacy in the work of our diplomatic missions.

The Waters of the Nile

The Egyptians have a popular saying, "He who drinks the waters of the Nile is destined to come back to Egypt". And so, after an exact quarter century since our departure from Cairo in 1987, we were back in August 2009 – this time as ambassador to a great country that still has a nostalgia about the special relationship between Prime Minister Nehru and President Nasser.

It’s been a turbulent time, working first with the government of President Mohammed Morsy and now with the Interim government. …

To be continued.......

The story wouldn’t be complete without a word about the family. The life of an itinerant diplomat poses special challenges for the spouse and kids.

Mani, over the years, has managed to re-invent herself at least twice. She used our stint in Washington to acquire a degree in Communication Design and has created a stream for herself as a graphic designer. And during our stay in South Africa, she also became involved in ceramics and pottery and produced an outstanding exhibition before the end of our tenure.

Our older daughter Manveena, a creation of Cairo, is a journalist in London. Jessleena, the younger one, was born in Delhi and chose to stay on in South Africa to pursue her passion for the environment.