Meet the ambassador: ‘It’s a good time to be the Indian ambassador in Israel’

Jaideep Sarkar talks about the diplomatic life, his term here, and his impressions of the land and its people.

INDIAN AMBASSADOR Jaideep Sarkar (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
India is a country of great diversity, but one thing all the Indian ambassadors to Israel have had in common is an enviable and amazing eloquence.
It’s a quiet, almost self-effacing eloquence without fire and brimstone, but a wonderful threading of words that create phrases and sentences that are linguistic treasures.
Jaideep Sarkar, the current Indian ambassador, is no exception. Gentle in manner, softly spoken, but weighing every word as if it were a jewel, he tempts his interviewer to put away her pen and notebook and just listen.
He was born in Western India, near Bombay, in 1963, and even as a small boy was interested in entering his country’s Foreign Service.
He was always attracted by the prestige and glamour of diplomatic life, he admits.
Once he actually became a diplomat in 1987 after completing a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a master’s degree in business administration, it wasn’t quite what he expected, but then he says philosophically that nothing is fully what you expect.
For all that, he’s had a good run, and certainly harbors no regrets.
For Sarkar, the best part of being in the diplomatic service is that it offers opportunities in a variety of jobs, coming into contact with a variety of people and being exposed to a variety of cultures.
The downside is that it sometimes takes a toll on family life. It also affects the careers of spouses and the schooling of children.
“But overall it enriches the whole family.”
Sarkar’s exposure to different cultures is actually part of his married life. His wife, Minako, is Japanese. His first overseas posting was in Japan, and that’s when he met her. Their household is a Japanese-Indian mix, as are their two sons aged 21 and 18.
Both boys came to Israel with their parents.
The younger one went to the American School and is now in the Netherlands studying business management. The older one studied music at the Rimon School and he’s now in Germany, where, like his younger brother, he is also studying business management.
In some countries, diplomats are given a posting and have little to say about whether it suits them. In other countries, they can apply for posts that are soon to be vacated.
Sarkar wanted to come to Israel, partially because he wanted to compare it with Japan, “which is one of the unique and old cultures in one part of the world, and I thought that Israel would be a unique and fascinating experience in another part of the world.”
Aside from that, “it’s a very good time to be the Indian ambassador in Israel.”
There’s a new momentum in the relationship between the two countries, Sarkar tells The Jerusalem Post, citing cooperative ventures in agriculture, defense, education, science and technology, and cultural exchanges.
What appeals to him most in Israel? “I like the intellectual vitality of the people and their capacity for straight talk. I also like that they don’t believe in too much protocol.”
When time allows, Sarkar and his family enjoy hiking – either in the North or in the Negev. He is particularly fond of the Negev, which he finds “beautiful” and “a hiker’s paradise.”
India, too, has a varied landscape, he says, “but you have to travel for a long period to reach the mountains, and here it takes only two hours.”
He is interested in tasting the variety of cuisines in Israel with their multitude of culinary traditions handed down in families that came from so many diverse backgrounds.
He particularly enjoys eating at the homes of people of Polish or Yemenite background, precisely because the cuisine of each has such a distinct character.
Sarkar goes to the theater occasionally, but finds that he has a language problem which impedes his full appreciation of the performance.
For all that, he detects a lot of creativity in the cultural scene, and much of that creativity is very contemporary, in his view.
Like most diplomats, his reading is restricted to current affairs and history.
Fortunately, he has always loved history, so it’s not a chore reading the history of his host country. He is currently reading Michael Bar-Zohar’s biography of Ben-Gurion, as well as an autobiographical book that Shimon Peres gave him.
Despite the difference in the size geographically and demographically, there are historical similarities between India and Israel, Sarkar observes.
Both countries had been governed by a left-of-center, one-party administration.
India had been ruled by the Congress Party for most of the years of its independence, until its defeat by the Bharatiya Janata Party, whereas Israel had been ruled by Mapai until Menachem Begin reversed the political tide in 1977 and the Likud came into power. The leaders of India and Israel, even in the most difficult times of independence, back in the 1940s and 1950s, emphasized the importance of science and technology. Both countries have space programs which were established several decades ago.
Yet for all that, India and Israel did not establish full diplomatic relations till 1992, although there had been an Israeli consulate in Bombay since 1950.
Why did it take so long? Sarkar avoids the pre-1992 period, saying merely that there was “a different international climate.”
Then the Cold War ended, the Madrid Conference was the beginning of the Middle East peace process, and India was among a number of countries that normalized ties with Israel.
Before coming to Israel, Sarkar served in Japan, Korea and Bangladesh, holding political and economic portfolios. He also worked in the Ministry of Finance for four years dealing with EU member states and later served as director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and served for eight years in the Prime Minister’s Office, working for two years as the director and then for six years as the personal secretary to prime minister Manmohan Singh.
Does that mean that his was a political appointment? Sarkar is quick to assure his interlocutor that he is a career diplomat.
Which does he like better, being a diplomat or the personal secretary to the prime minister? His reply is, well, diplomatic: “Each job has its own charm, and it’s fun being a diplomat as well.”
The usual term for a posting in India is three years, and Sarkar’s term will soon be up. He has not yet been told exactly when or what his next assignment will be.
“We have always seen Israel as a key diplomatic posting,” he says. “People who have served here have become a foreign secretary or a national security adviser or an ambassador to the United States.”
And which would he like? Sarkar grins and says: “Any one of those would be okay, but one should not aspire to too much.”
Meanwhile, he’s gearing up for the annual Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference on November 18 at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Jerusalem, at which he will be one of the speakers.
And there’s one other thing he’s doing – which is promoting roots tours to India.
There’s quite a substantial Indian community in Israel, and Sarkar spoke to several thousand of its members last month in Ramle at the Third National Convention of Indian Jews. India is organizing Jewish heritage tours with the aim of getting young Indian Jews or young Jews of Indian background to reconnect with their Indian roots. Toward this aim, it is renovating Jewish heritage sites throughout India.
He believes that heritage tours will strength connections between the two countries. Such ties are already strong, especially in areas of defense and the fight against terrorism.
India is the largest purchaser of Israeli military equipment, and most recently purchased more than 8,000 Israeli antitank guided missiles.