A New World Man for a young rising nation, Prashant Agrawal has big plans for India in Hong Kong.
The interview with the Indian Consul General kicks off in French. Oui, en français.
This classic minded, culture loving Consul General is anything but an old school thinker. Like the nation he represents, he embodies a series of contradictions that present opportunities for those who will work with modern India for the next decade. The old and the new mix in equal parts as it moves forward – like Prashant Agrawal.
He’s a restless young romantic
First, the old world. In the Indian diplomatic service, the chosen few begin their career abroad with a language assignment where they do nothing but learn a language before taking up their assignment. CG Agrawal chose French as a traditional language of diplomacy – and one that he had fallen in love with. Fortunately, he arrived in France already betrothed and impervious to the legendary charms of France’s fairer half. Mrs. Rakhee Agrawal, already noted on the Hong Kong social scene, came with CG Agrawal and was taking up the language as well.
Prashant Agrawal joined the service in 1998 – the same year India launched a nuclear bomb test that was popular with many at home, but earned it international opprobrium. Without a hint of irony, the CG noted, ““The fallout of that lasted for some time.”
Likely the fallout was still in play when he arrived in Paris in 2000 – but not for much longer. Harsh rhetoric in 1998 was matched with weak action and most sanctions were lifted within five years. Within a decade, the younger CG Agrawal was part of a large, decades long, multifaceted project to reach accords on peaceful use of nuclear materials – like his Hong Kong CG predecessor Gaddam Dharmendra. Gaddam was already part of a team based in Washington DC working on this issue when Sept. 11 occurred (see Diplomat Issue #8) three years later.
In 1998, however, the French-India relationship was on the upswing. While France made some comments of concern aligned with its traditional partners over the testing, it opposed sanctions imposed by many other countries.
Paris was the perfect beginning for a young culture fanatic. Rather than the insular and self-important Parisians of repute, the young diplomat found the city’s citoyennes to be warm, engaging, and hungry for Indian cultural experiences. He describes nighttime Indian culture-sharing events: People rushing in to fill seats, aisles, any open space to enjoy all night raga concerts. It was an exciting time in an old world capital for the New World Man.
He’s a writer and a ranger..
France also gave scope for a peculiar passion and hobby – experiencing UNESCO World Heritage (UWH) sites. – over 65 in 30 countries thus far His photos of these sites have been published in a variety of publications. With 38 in France and 30 in India, he would have had his holidays full during his postings abroad and at home. Later postings in Mauritius (2) and Thailand (5), may have left him hungry for his current posting. While Hong Kong may be UNESCO World Heritage Site free, there is one in his jurisdiction – the Historic Centre of Macau. North of the border lie another 44, making China second only to Italy (49) in this regard.
The CG has, in his short time in Hong Kong, already hosted multiple cultural events including hosting an Indian artist (see Issue #21) and last Sunday’s India Show at the Regal Hotel at the Airport (see pictures). On May 14th, the Consulate will host ‘In the footsteps of Buddha’, a photo and art exhibition hosted at…Comix Home Base in Wanchai. Not your grandmother’s art gallery. One gets a sense that his heightened interest in the culture of others gives him a perspective on how to share India’s ancient and modern cultures with the countries he serves in. From 2009, that was Thailand.
The CG was based in Thailand for an unusually long stay – from 2009-2014. He took the opportunity to visit some of Thailand’s UWH sites – and carry on. He crossed the border into Cambodia with his family to visit The Temple of Preah Vihear. The site had previously been subject to armed conflict between Thailand and Cambodia, who have historically laid competing claims to the Temple. 2011 saw violent clashes and artillery bombardments, leading to, Cambodia claims, collapse of some parts of the site.
Diplomatic clashes have been no less vitriolic, with the two sparring in international forums attempting to resolve the situation. The CG’s visit in 2013 coincided with only legal wrangling at the International Court of Justice who finally decided in Cambodia’s favour in November last year. Rather than belligerents, he only encountered friendly locals that encouraged him to press on another 400km overland to reach another UWH site: Laos’s ‘Town of Luang Prabang.’
Trying to pave the way
Most of his time in Thailand was marked by the solid work of a diplomat. Bangkok is home to a range of multilateral institutions, including many related to ASEAN and the UN. CG Agrawal understates the excitement of the times: “A lot that happened at that time.”
He talks about partnering with Thailand to work on development in the Mekong River region and makes typical diplomatic-speak references to obscure, daily bread diplomatic work like BIMSTEC – the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation. He briefly mentions the two major exchanges of Prime Ministers of recent years, pairing India’s venerable Manmohan Singh and the glamourous and controversial Yingluck Shinawatra.
He was promoted to the deputy head of mission during this time, likely reflecting his success on keeping his head down and making things happen. Extradition treaties, science and technology agreements, student exchanges and more happened during this period (see sidebar).
While his culture loving side may suggest an artistic disposition, the understated character probably reveals more of his origins – a numbers driven, heads down engineer with his eye on successful project completion.