Asad Lalljee is SVP, Essar Group, CEO, Avid Learning and Curator, Royal Opera House, Mumbai. Prior to relocating to India, Asad worked for 14 years as one of the ‘Mad Men’ advertising executives on New York’s Madison Avenue. He was with McCann-Erickson, and earlier with Hill Holiday, a subsidiary of advertising giant In 2018, he was inducted into the prestigious FICCI Art and Culture Committee. He has previously worked for companies like McCann-Erickson and Hill Holiday (IPG) in New York. He holds a B.A. Economics (St. Xavier’s College) and an M.A. Global Marketing Communications (Emerson College, Boston).
What does your work at Avid Learning look like?
My tryst with Avid Learning was nothing less than a serendipitous one. After 14 years of working as a Mad Man in Madison Avenue when I came to Mumbai, I was introduced to Avid Learning. Since then, by imbibing a simple mantra that I lived by so far- Learning Never Stops- I took a modest year old continuing education program and started to create content and programs around the arts (Applied, Visual and performing).
Today Avid Learning has grown into one of Mumbai’s leading public programming platforms and is firmly entrenched in the country’s wider cultural ecosystem of which I am the CEO.
Over the years, under my aegis, AVID has gained a reputation for curating thought provoking, innovative and path-breaking content that is intellectually and creatively stimulating and engages with a variety of topical subjects and trends. Our thoughtfully curated and diverse events embrace the spirit of collaboration to bring together the best of Indian and international writers, artists, intellectuals, cultural experts, policymakers and industry leaders across Visual Art, Literature, Culture and Heritage, Education, Design & Technology and the Performing Arts through engaging and dynamic formats like panel discussions, workshops & master classes, roundtables, lecture demonstrations, festival platforms, symposiums & conferences, multidisciplinary performances and walkthroughs.
Tell us more about your role at the Royal Opera House?
In 2016, I was appointed as the curator of the newly restored Royal Opera House, Mumbai where my role consists ofcuration of eclectic and multidisciplinary programming. Today Royal Opera House has positioned itself as not just a spectacular location and heritage landmark, but more so as a proactive partner and catalyst in the propagation and revival of arts and culture in the city. Apart from the venue playing host to performances across several genres of music and theatre and presenting unique comedy and fashion shows on its grand stage, AVID has depersonalised the space by also bringing in Literature through book launches, Art through interdisciplinary performances, discussions, pop-ups and a robust arts initiative.
How did your experience at Ad agencies in New York create a base for your current work in India?
It is always believed that Advertising is just a form of Arts. After spending 14 years in Advertising at NYC and having worked with some of the biggest brands, I have learned that power to connect with target audiences lies in leveraging a multitude of creative tactics.
In the same way, at AVID I have continued to adapt the fundamentals of advertising, technology, brand elements and social media for my campaigns and create new forms of engagement touchpoints audiences. My aim is to make culture cool, accessible, inspirational to not just the few handful communities but for kids, for new voices for nascent talent from all borders.
What are some projects you see yourself working on for the rest of 2022?
In 2022, We will continue to curate a multiverse and hybrid programming module, based on current industry trends, and learnings from COVID-era practices, this financial year, Avid Learning aims to continue to build its programming platform into an integrated hybrid model which features both virtual and in person programs. Our focus this year will also be on strengthening our cultural diplomatic ties and creating newer platforms and opportunities for artists across borders to come and re-engage with arts post the gap of 2 years.
We have also planned to partner with Start Art and Kala Ghoda Arts Festival to present sustainability-related conversations and discussions on Mumbai’s diasporic communities and heritage. We also have in the pipeline ‘The (Un)Convention’, a day long production featuring performances and presentations by industry and some of the best artists in the country.
How can we promote culture and arts further in India?
I have always believed in the power of cultural diplomacy to widen horizons and broaden minds and have been applying it to my work at AVID as well. I believe that by leveraging our local and international relationships we can bring the best of International Art, Culture and Design to our city and our audiences. This has always been my focus in promoting Arts and Culture further in India.
What are three social causes you feel passionate about and want to amplify?
I have always believed in the power of the arts in impacting great social change and have regularly offered our support and platforms for social advocacy. At Royal Opera House, Mumbai, I have brought on stage various differently-abled groups and artistes. We had a fantastic visually impaired orchestra perform on stage, displayed beautiful braille art, and many such events. We have also aligned with powerful annual socio-diplomatic initiatives like International Day of the Girl Child and International Women’s Day and supported significant campaigns like UN Women’s HeforShe and One Billion Rising.
In 2022, I pulled together an elaborate series of presentations, panel discussions and workshops called Sustainability NOW with an aim to convert audiences into change-makers and custodians of a greener tomorrow. Under this umbrella, we have had over 40 thought-provoking programmes.
I am personally passionate about growing and supporting the Arts Education landscape here in India, Being a parent, I have realised the importance of quality education and the power of the arts to mold children. Keeping that in mind, we have programmed numerous edutaining events for kids – from hosting children’s literature festivals annually to organising arts pedagogy roundtables and publishing an illustrated children’s book to engagingly teach them about sustainability.
The newly Coral Woman book was one such effort to empower the future custodians of the earth through the power of arts.
Which are some books that have influenced you personally?
Reading equipped me with many professional and life lessons. I remember devouring books whenever I got a chance. Three books stand out for me which helped me through my advertising years in New York were – AdCultUSA by James Twitchell, The anatomy of Buzz by Emanuel Rosen, and Straight from the Gut by Jack Welch.
Sujit S Nair – Creating diplomatic ties between Europe and India
Sujit S Nair., FRSA, the Chairman of Europe India Centre for Business & Industry (EICBI), is an accomplished international trade and relations professional with expertise in the UK- India and EU India corridor. Over the past eleven years, he has organised 22 Major summits at British Parliament in London and 3 Major summits at European Parliament in Brussels to promote relations between India and the EU as well as between India and the UK, in addition to other activities like delegations’ visits, virtual interactions etc.
Sujit is also an entrepreneur with interest in the beauty sector. Along with his wife, Lakshmi Menon, they run a social impact venture called Face Palette in Kerala, India, that uses Makeup as a tool to take women on a journey to employability and entrepreneurship, equipping them with a flexitime skillset like makeup artistry that helps them to balance their personal and professional commitments.
Please tell us more about your work at Europe India Centre for Business Industry.
Europe India Centre for Business and Industry (EICBI), managed by Sivaleen Foundation for Developed India, is an independent, multilateral organisation promoting trade and relationships in the UK India corridor and EU India corridor. EICBI was formed to make EU/ UK companies aware of the business opportunities in India and vice versa. EICBI hosts projects and international forums to promote specific business and geopolitical initiatives.
We create awareness and opportunities for our stakeholders through our physical summits, virtual events, an annual listing of EuropeIndia40 leaders and delegation visits of European MPs to India. This year 2022, celebrates 60 years of establishment of diplomatic relations between India and the European Union (EU), and EICBI has been organising a series of activities as part of the EUIndia60 Campaign.
What are some key industries where we are seeing Europe and India collaboration currently?
For EICBI, our European activities focus on promoting collaboration in the UK India corridor and EU India corridor.
In the UK India corridor, the top sectors of interest for UK companies were India’s industrial, business services, technology, consumer retail and e-commerce. The top sectors of interest for Indian companies in the UK were food and drink, creative and media, environment, infrastructure and transportation, biotechnology and pharmaceutical.
In the EU India corridor, textiles, leather, pharma, sports goods, some agri products, handicrafts, and handlooms are some of the critical industries from India that have a significant presence in the EU. In the case of EU companies in India, key industries are in Automotives, Chemicals and Business Services Sector.
Tell us more about your work as an RSA Connector.
As the RSA connector based in India, I am a point of contact for fellows in India. I also scout for people doing great work in India and put forth their nominations for the RSA fellowship network.
How has being a part of RSA created value in your life?
I have been a fellow of the RSA for nearly a decade. Being an RSA fellow helps me be part of a diverse network of like-minded people and expand my work. Also, as part of my work, I meet many highly credible leaders and stakeholders in the EU India/ UK India corridor. The fellowship of the RSA helped to increase my credibility in this network.
How can the RSA Fellowship create value for people who are not based in the UK?
RSA fellows outside the UK must actively use the RSA social network to connect with other RSA fellows in their region. This will help to meet potential fellows and explore collaborations with them.
How do you envision India – UK partnership in the upcoming years with the change in Prime Ministerial Candidate in 2022?
India – UK partnership will continue to thrive irrespective of who will become the Prime Minister in 2022. India-UK relations are on a high trajectory, and there have been a series of discussions and interactions between political leaders, government officials and other stakeholders from the UK and India. There is also a strong political will to get the Free Trade Agreement signed in the next few months. UK PM Boris Johnson’s strong support for signing FTA with India and his special friendship with Indian PM Narendra Modi did help in sorting out several issues between India and the UK. As the new PM might take a bit of time to get up to date with the issues, I assume that UK India FTA might be delayed by a few months, but I do not see any adverse changes to India UK partnership due to the change of the Prime Minister in the UK.
What are your plans for the future?
I hope to continue pursuing my work in promoting UK India and EU India relations in the foreseeable future. When compared to the EU India corridor, the UK India corridor has a greater number of stakeholders who are actively working in promoting relations between the regions. I believe that there is a lot more work to be done in connecting people and leveraging opportunities in these regions. As I also run a beauty venture with my wife, I hope to continue Face Palette’s work in supporting more women in India to be financially independent.
Reflecting on Elon Musk’s Acquisition of Twitter and China’s Twitter Diplomacy
The CEO of Tesla, Elon Musk, has always been an ambitious business magnate who actively expands into different businesses to realise his visions. Recently, his sudden offer of purchasing and privatising Twitter for 44 billion US dollars has shocked the world. Since Musk has strong business ties with China and often praises China effusively, this proposal has aroused widespread fear that Twitter will end up being a platform for China to spread its propaganda.
Although the deal was once “temporarily on hold” and is now “terminated” because of Musk’s concern about the prevalence of spam accounts, the international reactions to the takeover are reflecting the strategic importance of social media platforms to China. The privatisation of social media platforms could, in fact, foster China’s Twitter Diplomacy and shake international politics. Thus, we must keep an eye on the relationships between the business sector and foreign governments.
Twitter’s Outstanding Outreach Capabilities
As an influential social media platform with millions of users, Twitter offers strong outreach capabilities, which allows messages to be spread across the world. Users can also share their comments or engage in debates with other users on a certain topic. Meanwhile, the retweet function helps users disseminate information with just a few clicks, while the hashtag function helps the users to reach a high coverage of audience rapidly, regardless of whether the audience has followed the users. For instance, by adding the hashtag #pancake in the tweet, international audiences can also see the tweet in their search results of #pancake. Therefore, Twitter has become an attractive platform for politicians or governments to spread political messages and shape discussions. In particular, the former United States President Donald Trump created a large number of tweets to draw attention, mobilise support, and issue orders.
China’s Weaponized Use of Twitter
While China “had almost no diplomatic presence on Twitter’ a few years ago, China has gradually realised the benefits of using Twitter as a diplomatic weapon.
In 2018, China finally established its first official account on Twitter (Chinese Foreign Ministry, @MFA_China) to engage with the global audience. China is possibly using automation and bot accounts to retweet their political messages, influence public conversations, and spread their propaganda as well. To fully utilise Twitter as a propaganda tool, China also creates clickbait content or promotes conspiracy theories to capture international users’ attention.
In particular, China was increasing its use of Twitter when it faces international pressure stemming from human rights suppression in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, the Sino-US trade war, and the Covid-19 pandemic. For example, the spokesman of China’s Foreign Minister, Zhao Lijian, has tweeted a conspiracy theory that the Covid-19 virus actually originates in the United States. Subsequently, a wave of #USAVirus tweets is sweeping across Twitter to support this claim.
Following the increasing tension between China and the international community brought by the Russian-Ukraine War, China is likely to make use of Twitter as its battlefield with its rivals, so as to craft the image that China is become suppressed or discriminated against by the Western hegemons.
Why Does Privatisation Matter?
This tendency to convey biased messages on Twitter to defend China’s reputation can be arguably encouraged by Musk’s proposal of privatising Twitter. Since Musk has friendly relations with China and he has been actively expanding into the Chinese market, critics argue that Musk could face pressure from the Beijing government, which could force Musk to allow China to track opponents, bolster its propaganda, suppress criticism, and spread disinformation. This has given us a warning that vested business interests of technological giants with autocratic countries can seriously influence the development of global politics.
Musk’s deal is appearing to be telling us the fact that a wealthy and powerful giant can easily take over social media platforms to realise his aspiration or accomplish some political goals. When social media platforms are arbitrarily controlled by individuals with inextricable affiliations with autocratic countries, they can be put vulnerable to the dictatorships’ intervention. Privatisation of Twitter thus could make it easier for China to continue its political advertising or “manipulate” public opinions by creating and controlling inauthentic accounts, although such promotions are supposedly banned by Twitter to contain China’s expansion. More disinformation and propaganda could arise, while Twitter would not take action against it. This will increase the effectiveness of Twitter diplomacy in using biased messages to persuade people to support the autocratic regime.
Under the aforementioned high volume and rapid dissemination of tweets, China can dominate the discussions and create an illusion that the world leans toward China. Seeing more and more pro-China posts, the public may mistakenly think that pro-China opinions are the dominating views in society. Accordingly, the international audience will fail to filter propaganda, while developing a more positive attitude toward China and a more hostile attitude towards the West. Therefore, the privatisation of social media can have a far-reaching impact on public opinions on geopolitics.
We Must Stay Alert
In this technological era, the digital sphere will certainly become a bloodshed battlefield for different countries to carry out their digital diplomacy. Following China’s increasing aggression and familiarity with Twitter diplomacy, Twitter is emerging as a strategic tool for countries to confront each other. If social media cannot be freed from political intervention from specific countries, it will become a biased platform for autocratic countries to spread their propaganda and distorted information. While we can be relieved for a while since Musk’s deal is now terminated, we have to stay alert to the potential impacts brought by social media platforms’ business ties with certain countries on international affairs.
G20 Will Not Become an Enlarged G7
The G20 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (FMM) is being held in Bali on Thursday and Friday. It is one of the most important events on the way to the G20 summit that the island will host on November 15–16. The official announcement discloses the overarching theme of the meeting—”Recover Together, Recover Stronger”—as well as the aim “to enhance further collaboration through dialogue to revive multilateralism in addressing global challenges.”
This year, the FMM takes place under extremely challenging political circumstances resulting from the Russia-Ukraine conflict and, more generally, from Russia-West confrontation climbing to a new, unprecedented level. One cannot envy Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov: He is doomed to get an ice-cold treatment from his Western peers who stay firm in their intention to ignore him in Bali. Still, Russia will hardly be fully isolated at the FMM: Lavrov can count on a chain of bilateral consultations with his counterparts from several non-Western G20 countries including China, Mexico, South Africa and Brazil, as well as with the invited leaders of some international organizations.
However, the FMM intrigue is not limited to Russia’s place within G20. The West comes to Bali more united than it has ever been since the end of the Cold War. The recent summits of G7, the North Atlantic Alliance and the European Union have demonstrated an exceptionally high degree of the Western cohesion. It is clear that the Western leaders have done their homework for the FMM and that they will actively try to advance their strategic goals at the meetings in July and in November.
Ideally, the West would like to turn G20 into a natural extension of G7, so that the Group of Seven liberal democracies could set the prime agenda for the 20 influential international actors, and through these actors—for an even larger international community. The desired agenda is much broader than the attitude to the Russia-Ukraine standoff, it is also about many other critical international issues, including the post-COVID recovery, multiple regional crises, resource management, climate change, global commons, and so on. If G7 could regain its former role as the rule-maker in global affairs, and if G20 would accept the role of a rule-taker, the world would get back to the unipolar model of the end of 20th century with US at the very top of the decision-making system and with the rest of G7 constituting the second tier of global governance.
However, these plans are not likely to work—neither at the forthcoming FMM and certainly not at the November G20 summit. The world today is simply too different from what it was in the end of last century; the balance of power between the West and “the Rest” has shifted dramatically in favor of the latter. The reality is that G20 has never been and will never become an extended or an enlarged version of G7, despite a significant overlap of membership between the two groups. While G7 is an exclusive club of Western democracies (even India has not been invited to formally join the group), G20 is an inclusive and diverse gathering of major global economies.
The diverse composition of G20 makes it more difficult to reach consensus within this group than within a more homogeneous G7 or within any other Western forum or institution. At the same time, diversity is one of the main sources of G20 legitimacy that G7 or NATO clearly lacks. Diversity and representativeness are assets that the Group of 20 cannot easily relinquish. For instance, though non-Western members of G20 have various attitudes toward Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine, they fully understand that expelling Moscow from the group or ostracizing Vladimir Putin would set a dangerous precedent within the group that they would like to avoid.
This is exactly why G20 focuses mostly not on divisive and potentially explosive matters of international security, but rather on the unifying agenda of global economy and finance. This is the agenda, with which the group came to the fore of world politics during the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, and these priorities have to be preserved in our difficult times. It is true that today security and development can hardly be separated from each other. However, it is more logical and more productive for G20 to work hand in hand with the United Nations Security Council rather than to try to replace the latter.
G7 might and probably should be an important source of new ideas for G20 on global development, but such an advisory and consultative role may be also claimed by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, BRICS, APEC and many other similar institutions. For the West it would be better than not to try to impose a partisan G7 approach on a more inclusive G20 forum, but instead to consider mutual adjustments on trade, investments, international assistance, and so on and to attempt reaching a common denominator amid serious disagreements between the West and “the Rest.” The announced bilateral meeting between Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the margins of the FMM is a positive signal that might reflect a change of views in Washington on how far the US should go in its confrontation with Beijing, provided that the meeting will not be limited to US trying to convince China to move to the “right side of history” and to abandon its strategic partnership with Russia.
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