Ashley Tellis: From a Bandra boy to Trump’s probable pick for US envoy to India

After reports of US President-Elect Donald Trump’s intention to appoint Tellis as the next US ambassador to India went viral on various social media platforms, Hindustan Times spoke to his teachers, colleagues and friends about his journey from a Bandra boy to a top US diplomat.

mumbai Updated: Jan 11, 2017 09:18 IST
Badri Chatterjee
Badri Chatterjee
Hindustan Timesm, Mumbai
Ashley J Tellis,St Xavier’s College,Donald Trump’s
According to reports, Mumbai-born Ashley Tellis has been picked up by President-elect Donald Trump to be the next US ambassador to India. (Harikrishna Katragadda/Mint Photo)

Friends and teachers of Mumbai-born strategic expert Ashley J Tellis, reported to be US president-elect Donald Trump’s pick as the next ambassador to India, remember him as an exceptional student who was even asked by his teachers to stand in for them.

“Since India began its reforms in 1991, it has received a great deal of attention in the west. At last, there is an expectation in the international community that India will finally take its place in the pantheon of great powers,” Tellis said in his speech at Mumbai’s St Xavier’s College in 2013.

Tellis completed both his bachelor’s and master’s from St Xavier’s College.

After reports that Tellis could soon to play a central role in the US-India relations went viral on social media, Hindustan Times spoke to his teachers, colleagues and friends about his journey from being a Bandra boy to a top US diplomat.

“Tellis was an economics student, who was an extremely eloquent, fluent speaker and was always interested in global issues. What struck a chord with everyone was his knowledge about all facets of the global business of arms and ammunition at the age of 20,” Agnelo Menezes, principal of St Xavier’s College, Dhobitalao and Tellis’ senior, said.

Read Ashley Tellis could be Trump’s pick to replace Rich Verma as US envoy to India

Tellis, currently a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace specialising in international security and Asian strategic issues, was closely involved in negotiating the landmark civil nuclear agreement between the US and India.

After being commissioned into the US foreign service, he served as senior adviser to the US ambassador in New Delhi during 2001-2003. He also served on the US national security council staff as special assistant to president George W Bush and senior director for strategic planning and Southwest Asia.

He has authored books on India’s nuclear programme and Asian security issues such as India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture (2001) and Interpreting China’s Grand Strategy: Past, Present, and Future (2000).

His friends remember him as a diligent student who garnered a number of accolades for his college in debate competitions.

“He was always a recognisable character. Whenever we went to the canteen, we saw him sitting there with a book in one hand and a pen in the other. But he never shied away from a conversation and boasted about how well updated he was with everything happening around him,” Captain Allwyn Saldanha, ex-merchant navy officer and Tellis’ classmate, said.

While Tellis’ teachers were proud of his accomplishments, they did not necessarily agree with his philosophy.

“As teachers, we could identify that he stood out in a class. One felt that he knew much more than others,” Nandini Sardesai, sociologist and former lecturer at St Xavier’s College who taught Tellis, said.

“Personally, I didn’t agree with a lot of his views and the fact that the Trump regime could possibly choose him as the next ambassador is something that did not go down well with me. I used to think he was leftist in his views and he did not seem like a right-winger at all,” she said.

She added that he was so well versed with his subjects that teachers used to ask him to be their substitute. “He could manage a complete lecture without blinking an eye. He was well read, articulate and therefore lecturers had the confidence to allow him to teach.”

A few of his classmates also thought that there was a fair bit of arrogance when he returned to Mumbai and gave his speech. “After he spoke, the students listening to him got very angry because of his speech. It seemed like India was not his breeding ground anymore and he had become used to the US way of life,” a St Xavier’s alumnus, requesting anonymity, said.

Captain Saldanha cleared the air by explaining Tellis’ personality. “He was someone who always looked for the truth, he did not like injustice and sometimes people took him amiss for this reason,” he said. “He was well grounded, had a lot of conviction about what he said. He always did his homework before opening his mouth, and once he did, people would listen,” he added.

Menezes recalls that Tellis had something almost like a photographic memory. “My friends and I were all taught about the largest naval battle in history – US Seventh Fleet – by Tellis. He actually got hold of hardcover slides and believe me, I have not forgotten about it till date,” he said.

Father Frazer Mascarenhas, a close friend and former principal of St Xavier’s College, said Tellis always knew what he was doing right from the beginning.

“His thoughts about international relations and recommendations for strengthening India-US relations were firm from his college days. Today, he has distinguished himself in the area of public policy and is one of the key figures intimately involved in negotiating the civil nuclear agreement between the two nations.”

First Published: Jan 10, 2017 09:26 IST