File photo of US diplomat Ashley J Tellis. Photo Courtesy: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Ashley Tellis will always be remembered by journalists based in Delhi who closely followed the Indo-US nuclear negotiations as the go-to person whenever there was a deadlock between both sides. He was always the emissary who found common ground in sometimes intractable positions.
Having served as former US Ambassador Robert Blackwill’s adviser here in Delhi, Mr. Tellis is familiar with the ways of Lutyens Delhi and how to operate the levers of power in South Block. At around the same time Tellis was posted in Delhi, Dr. S Jaishankar who is now Foreign Secretary was in the Americas desk in the MEA. Both these men played an important role in seeing through the nuclear deal often times burning the midnight oil. So both these men have their task cut out in steering Indo-US ties through a challenging phase when America’s priorities will be different under President Trump and when its authority is being increasingly challenged by an assertive China in the wider Asian region.
Tellis is currently a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He grew in Mumbai where he did both his Bachelors and Masters from the prestigious St. Xavier’s College. His teachers and fellow students remember him as an extremely bright student and also someone who was always willing to help. Always spotted in the canteen with a book and pen by his side, Tellis is known to have had a fascinating understanding of war history, even though he was a student of Economics. After Xaviers, Tellis migrated to the US to complete his Ph.D from the University of Chicago. He has served both in the US Diplomatic Corps as well as in think tanks like the RAND Corporation.
Tellis had a fascinating story about how and why George Bush was so good to India despite being a fairly unpopular President overall. Apparently, Bush after his election victory invited some of his closest advisers to his ranch in Texas to talk foreign policy. After about an hour’s discussion about the Middle East, China and Europe, discussing various security and strategic challenges, Bush took a globe, rotated it, looked at China, then looked at India and said, ”if we are to contain China, then why don’t we look at India more closely? After all, they are a big country and they are a democracy. What better country to counter China?” Tellis then rubbed his stomach and told eagerly attentive journalists, “Bush thought from the gut.”
What’s interesting is, Mr. Tellis didn’t have the most charitable things to say about his prospective boss Donald Trump until recently. On his last trip to India, this is what Tellis said about Donald Trump. “Hopefully, the US will not ever enjoy a Trump presidency… it is simply impossible to predict what a President Trump would mean for US-India relations or for that matter any other issue. Trump is incredibly erratic in the way he approaches the world and that seems to be his distinctive personality trait.” Tellis went on to say that the billionaire is not well informed about policy issues and asserted that US-India issues might not be on his priority list. Given this statement, it’ll be interesting to see if Trump would give Tellis the job. And even if he did, if Mr. Tellis would accept it.