Shikha Bhatnagar's recent appointment as Associate Director of the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council, is yet another manifestation of a growing trend of second generation Indian Americans' advent into leading Washington, DC think tanks as senior policy analysts and associates.
In recent months, Parag Khanna, first at The Brookings Institution, joined the New America Foundation as a Senior Research Fellow of the America Strategy Program and Director of Global Governance Initiative and then Neera Tanden, an alumni of the Center for American Progress after a stint as a senior adviser in the Obama administration returned to CAP as the Chief Operating Officer.
Bhatnagar, 34, comes to the Atlantic Council after heading up the US Office of Akshaya Patra Foundation in Boston, Massachusetts, and then from April 2008 to the tail-end of 2009, being the executive director of Teach for India in Pune.
On her move from philanthropy to education to being a policy wonk, Bhatnagar told rediff.com, "Although I have worked on South Asian issues throughout my career, heading up the US office of Akshaya Patra Foundation exposed me to the amazing activities occurring nowadays in India's social sector."
"Witnessing the potential of seemingly simple solutions, like providing a school lunch, on large scale problems such as education, was deeply inspirational," she said, and noted that "it encouraged me to leave Akshaya Patra, and challenge myself in new ways on-the-ground in India, and this is why I joined Teach for India in charge of its Pune operations."
Bhatnagar said, "My role was to build the foundation of the local Pune office, and to recruit the first batch of Fellows for the program."
Teach for India, modeled after the Teach for America, selects outstanding young leaders around the country, and recruits them to serve as teachers in low-resourced schools, with the idea of in the long-term, developing a community of effective alumni who continue to serve as advocates of educational equity throughout their careers."
The New Delhi-born Bhatnagar, who moved to Las Vegas, Nevada at the age of 3 and was raised there, said, "I left India in 2009 for personal reasons, yet my interest in South Asian affairs remained strong, and upon returning to Washington, DC, I was privileged to join the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council."
She said, "This opportunity uniquely leverages my field and philanthropic experience for policy-making, and has already broadened my understanding of the region to include Afghanistan, Pakistan, parts of the Middle Eastsuch as Iran-- and Central Asia."
Bhatnagar said the South Asia Center, which is headed by Shuja Nawaz, "is a solution-oriented group focused on practical promotion of peace in the region."
"At the Center," she explained, "we engage stakeholders at all levels in working towards effective and sustainable solutions to achieving stability and economic growth; and 'waging peace' in South Asia by promoting and developing creative strategies to increase dialogue between countries."
Bhatnagar said, "We are keenly interested in drawing the South Asian diaspora into our programming by focusing on diverse issues of interest to them, such as international security, trade, education, governance and economic development."
"Additionally, the South Asia Center is firmly and uniquely committed to incorporating viewpoints from South Asia, and from folks 'outside the Washington beltway,' she added.
Bhatnagar said that "Returning here, I was quickly reminded of how few people in Washington are intimately knowledgeable about issues abroad," and bemoaned that "this carries serious implications for US strategy in effectively addressing critical global challenges."
She said that she was "fortunate to work under Shuja Nawaz, who is a real mentor, true expert and leading scholar of the region. Our prospects for peace in South Asia are strengthened by people like him -- who, through their informed insights and ability to bring together leaders from both sides of the aisle -- or border, in this case -- are moving our complex and historically tense region closer to stability and prosperity."
Bhatnagar said that "while several Indian Americans support organizations addressing hunger and education -- such as Akshaya Patra and Teach for India -- I would encourage them to recognize regional stability as an equally important and related issue, requiring their active involvement and support."
Nawaz told India Abroad, "Shikha has brought to the Center a ground knowledge of India and a commitment to 'waging peace' in the region."
She said that "her knowledge and desire to add to it has been a major factor in the rapid growth of our circle of friends and influence."
Prior to her stints with Akshaya Patra and Teach for India, Bhatnagar was a Presidential Management Fellow and served as an international trade specialist at the US Department of Commerce and worked on bilateral trade agreements and other international trade policy issues.
She also spent considerable time volunteering with rural development organizations in India and has remained an active South Asian American community activist, and currently sits on the board of directors of the Upakar Foundation-- a non-profit organisation that provides merit and need based college scholarships to Indian Americna high school graduates.
Bhatnagar has earlier held leadership positions with the Network of South Asian Professionals and Indus Women Leaders, in Washington, DC. She is also an active alumnus(Class of 1995) of the Washington Leadership Program -- conceived and founded by the late owner and erstwhile publisher of India Abroad, Gopal Raju -- which provides young South Asia Americans an opportunity to intern with US Congressional offices in DC.
She is an alumnus of the University of Wisconsin, Madison (Class of 1997) and Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs (Class of 2001) from where she received her BA and MA respectively in international relations and political science and international affairs.