“The last few months have been memorable for many reasons. I have received a very warm welcome from the Hungarian government and the Hungarian people. Their interest in Indian culture and appreciation of our traditions has helped considerably in my duties,” the Ambassador of the Republic of India to Hungary, Rahul Chhabra summarizes his first impressions in this country to Diplomacy and Trade. He presented his credentials to President János Áder in September 2015. This is his first assignment as Ambassador.
This is not the first time that Rahul Chhabra has been in Hungary. As past Director-General for Central Europe in the Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi, he was already very familiar with the region. “I had a lot of interaction with Hungarian officials, especially during the organization of state visits like that of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to India in 2013 and, also in that year, I accompanied our Foreign Minister, Salman Khurshid to Budapest.” This latter visit was special in the sense that, at Rahul Chhabra’s initiative, Mr. Khurshid was the first – and so far, probably the only – non-EU official to address the annual conference of Hungarian diplomats.
As regards the goals he would like to achieve here as the Indian ambassador in Hungary, he mentions the intensification of economic linkages as his my primary aim. “People-to-people contact will be the other area of focus. We are planning on organizing a Festival of India, for the very first time, bearing the name ‘Ganges-Danube’ on June 17 -19 this year. In addition to Budapest, events will be organized in Szeged, Debrecen, Eger, Balatonfüred, Esztergom, Szentendre and Nagykanizsa. The Hungarian public will be able to enjoy music, dance, fashion, food, yoga and several other elements of Indian culture. People will get a taste and flavor of India. I invite Hungarians, particularly the youth, to connect with the embassy on social media platforms such as Facebook (India in Hungary) and Twitter.”
Rahul Chhabra has served Indian diplomacy in various countries (China, the United States, France, Belgium, Senegal and the Philippines) and this is his first assignment as Ambassador. “Each country is different,” he says. “Of course, being an ambassador also gives you a different perspective.”
Indian investments in Hungary total USD two billion and they employ about 10,000 Hungarians. Auto ancillary companies SMR and Apollo Tyres and IT giant TCS are among the biggest Indian investors here. Indian multinationals are looking at further investments in several new areas. Hungary’s huge locational advantage, well-educated, highly skilled and industrious workforce, and availability of niche technologies, are among the main driving forces behind Indian investment.
Regarding where he sees room for improvement in order to intensify economic relations, the Ambassador points out that “in the past few years, the intensity of economic relations has been continuously increasing. Indian companies have been opening factories in Hungary, making India the largest investor here in 2014. Now, I would like to see Hungarian investment in India’s flagship programs increasing in a big way, to match India’s involvement here. India is the fastest growing economy in the world creating opportunities in most fields of cooperation from energy and defense to water management and IT.”
The Indian Embassy is proactively reaching out to the Hungarian business community. This March, they organized a Business Forum in Kecskemét, east-central Hungary, where they invited the local businessmen of Bács-Kiskun County to establish economic ties. Earlier in March, the Embassy also produced a detailed brochure in Hungarian containing information relevant for investment. “This has been shared on our Facebook page ‘India in Hungary’, Twitter and is now available on our website,” he adds.
“India is a big country and the Government led by Prime Minister Modi has envisaged a bigger role for India’s States in foreign policy. Hungary and the State of Karnataka signed a Memorandum of Understanding in October 2015 to expand economic linkages. There could be more linkages with other states in various fields,” the Ambassador stresses.
For various reasons, the current Hungarian government has turned towards the East. As to what role India has played in this process, so far, Ambassador Chhabra first of all recalls the Hungarian Prime Minister’s visit to India in October 2013. “There have been several other ministerial visits in both directions. India and Hungary enjoy a very good relationship. However, there is always scope for improvement in all activities of life. In that vein, I am aiming to take this excellent bilateral partnership to a higher plane.”
He adds that the Stipendium Hungaricum has been a successful program of the Hungarian government, under which 200 Indian students can come to Hungary. “On the other hand, we also provide several scholarships for Hungarians that are willing to do their studies/training in India.”
Even though, global trade has experienced a slow down over the last few years, bilateral trade figures have been stable between India and Hungary. “With this East-wards orientation of the Hungarian government, we expect an even greater deal of bilateral exchanges in all fields,” he adds.
He also finds it important to mention the growing number of Hungarians visiting India, something which is facilitated by the e-visa now available to Hungarians. Visitors apply online and they collect their visa on arrival at the airport in New Delhi.
Despite the geographical distance, cultural ties between the two countries date back to the 15th-16th centuries. Regarding the major aspects of these nowadays, the Ambassador says that in order to emphasize the importance and relevance of Indo-Hungarian cultural ties, he would like to highlight that the noted Hungarian scholar Sándor Kõrösi Csoma traveled to India nearly 200 years ago. He also recalls what Kõrösi Csoma wrote after his visit: "Seek and explore because no nation can find as many treasures in the ancient Indian cradle of culture to enrich its own as the Hungarian society".
He also quotes Nobel prize winning Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore from 90 years ago who (undergoing treatment in Balatonfüred, western Hungary) said that: “I have seen almost all the countries of the world, but I saw nowhere such a beautiful harmony of the sky and the water than I had the privilege to enjoy on the shore of Balatonfüred filling my soul with rapture.”
Another cultural aspect he mentions is that “Bollywood films are being shot in the beautiful Hungarian locales. Since Bollywood has a huge influence on tourism, we expect to see a big boost in the number of Indians visiting Hungary.”
He notes that “even though, geographically India and Hungary are far apart, there is actually a little piece of India right here in Budapest: our cultural center. The Amrita Sher-Gil Cultural Center’s raison d’etre exists to give a platform for the Hungarian public to get acquainted with India’s glorious cultural heritage in authentic form. Regular and diverse programs of high quality assure that they receive a holistic picture of India. The idea was born long ago; for more than two decades, there have been orientation courses and free Hindi classes organized by the Embassy of India, in collaboration with the Department of Indo-European Studies at ELTE University. The aim of the Cultural Center is not only to strengthen cultural relations, but also to deepen the long-established Indian-Hungarian bilateral relations and reach out to the general public. Besides authentic Indian performers and Hungarian artists who learned in India, opportunity is given to young talent. As I mentioned earlier, this June, we will be organizing in Hungary the Ganga-Danube festival where Hungarians will be able to enjoy a selection of India’s multi-faceted culture.”
As to what impressions he has had and what places he likes in Hungary, the Ambassador says that “I have been fortunate in the few months since I arrived to see a great deal of Hungary but still much remains to be discovered. Choosing a favorite location would be difficult since each and every place is unique and beautiful in its own way. From Debrecen to Balatonfüred, architecture and nature have been two of the aspects that never seize to amaze me. As for the people, it is good to talk to a lot of open and friendly Hungarians. It is good to interact with them and good to learn that many young people here know a lot about India.”
Regarding cuisine, whilst in Szeged, he discovered the flavorful Fisherman’s soup in which one of the ingredients is the spicy ground red paprika. “Since it is used in many other Hungarian dishes, as well, I was surprised to find this as a common element of Indian and Hungarian cuisine, as chili powder is also widely used in Indian kitchens.”
Ambassador Chhabra’s wife, Kavita is an active diplomatic spouse. In March, she held a lecture in the northeastern Hungarian town of Eger about the role of women in India and she is also active in the Diplomatic Spouses of Budapest group (DSB). She has organized yoga classes for interested DSB members. “She is also planning a visit for DSB and other diplomatic corps members to Krishna Valley in Somogy county, southeast of Lake Balaton this April. There, organizers will make a presentation on the ‘Eco Valley’ foundation aimed at sustainable development.”