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BGM Ambassador Chats: H.E. Mr. Arjun Asrani

H.E. Mr. Arjun Asrani is a former Indian diplomat - and has held three high-level diplomatic assignments to Japan. He gives his advice for any student wanting to follow a career path with the Indian Foreign Service.
BY Braingain Staff Writer |   25-11-2013
Mr. Arjun Asrani, former Indian Ambassador to Japan (on Left); Photo courtesy: http://jccii.in
Arjun Asrani is a well known Japan expert. He has, after all, had the privilege of retaining three diplomatic assignments to Japan, starting as the Third Secretary at the Indian Embassy in Tokyo in 1960, and retiring as Ambassador in 1992. He is also a former Joint Secretary dealing with Japan in the Finance Ministry. Other diplomatic assignments have included stints as India’s Ambassador to Thailand and Libya - and as the Consul General for India in New York.

These days Mr. Asrani is the Managing Trustee of the IndusInd Foundation, a faculty member of the Foreign Service Institute, and the Vice-Chairman of CCI India. He was conferred the award of Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun by His Majesty, the Emperor of Japan in 2004.

Braingainmag.com sat down with Mr. Asrani to discuss his choice of career, and advice for future diplomatic students.

BGM: How did you decide on your career choice of Diplomacy. What were the decisions that led you to joining the Indian Foreign Service?

Mr. Asrani: Frankly it was a very silly way - when I asked my friends whether I should put the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) or the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) on top of the list in the competitive examination that I was appearing for, they said obviously the Indian Foreign Service - you will see the world at Government expense!

BGM: You spent some time at Oxford University, how did it help your career?

Mr. Asrani: I think that was a great idea of Mr. Nehru to send the IFS chaps to Oxford or Cambridge – for, I learnt later on, acquiring social graces! It wasn’t really for education. Mine was the last batch that went. After us they decided that they could not afford it, and also nationalism prevailed. Why should our Foreign Service people go to Oxford and Cambridge? But I think it was a fantastic experience.

We were given three or four subjects but there was no examination at the end of it. We had a tutor for each of the subjects. I studied Japanese Language and European History. I remember one of the first things my tutor told me - he said – “I know you Indians have good English, but you have one weakness which all Indians seem to have, you start an essay with a quotation and end with a quotation. I don’t want quotationsbecause I know that they are in the books, I don’t want to be told what others have said. I have given you the books, read up and think - make up your own mind and give me your thoughts.” That stuck with me throughout my career - how to go deep into a subject and make one's contribution after some thinking on one’s own, rather than merely quoting great people.

But of course there were many other social graces I picked up there, like table manners - what wine goes with what, what were the different courses on the table. All that is very important in the diplomatic line. And one of the things I learnt was not to call a lady an old lady, no matter how old she might be - that was through an experience!

Traditional Japanese House

BGM: What was your most memorable experience at Oxford University?

Mr. Asrani: Oxford is a whole university town full of colleges, and no matter where you are registered as a student, once you have the Oxford University card you can go to any college to attend any class. I went for Archaeology and History, so many fantastic subjects and the best known names in the world were lecturing there.

On the fun side the most valuable experience was punting on the river. A couple of times I even fell into the river!

BGM: You’re currently the chairman of India Japan Partnership Forum and have served three times in Japan representing India. Can you share some thoughts on the choice of Japan as a country for students planning to go abroad to study?

Mr.Asrani: Living in Japan, that is an experience. Whether it is the Embassy people who have served in Tokyo or Osaka, or business people, or students - they have all fallen in love with the country.

Every student, apart from good instruction facilities, wants job opportunities at the end of it. I think that in the coming decade Japan and Japanese companies probably offer the maximum foreign company jobs in India and abroad. A day may come when the Japanese companies will be engaging Indians for jobs in the Middle East or Africa. They have a high opinion of Indian professionals - our English skills are the obvious, but our management skills are also recognized. Japanese companies’ have come to recognize the talent of Indian professionals, partly because they have a man-power shortage back home. So now it is not as it used to be a decade ago - an Indian could not look forward to rising very high. Today he can.

BGM: What is your advice for a student thinking of studying International Relations?

Mr. Asrani: If you have studied International Relations your first choice should be the Indian Foreign Service. After having served 35 years, I have had good and bad postings. I have been posted in Pakistan Libya, U.S.A., Japan, and Switzerland. If there was something like rebirth, I would ask to be in the Indian Foreign service.

BGM: What are the most important skills needed by a student pursuing International Relation?

Japan's flag

Mr. Asrani: What comes to my mind is Credibility, and this is learned from a book by a British diplomat - I read it 40 or50 years ago. He wrote, ‘You must create trust, so be careful in what you say, whatever you say must prove to be true, so credibility is very important’.

The second is never forget what is good for your country no matter which country you are working for. You are there at your tax payers cost and you must serve the country.

Also, be decisive, that’s important. A wrong decision is not as bad as no decision.

BGM: What is the one thing that you recommend that students from India going to Japan should pack with them?

Mr. Asrani: Well now it’s easy to get Basmati Rice in Tokyo, so I would say pack some presents which you can give to the Japanese. Those presents should not be handicrafts - Japanese houses and offices have no space to display to keep those. They greatly value Darjeeling tea, silk carpets, and silk scarves or shawls for the ladies (in black to be on the safe side).

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