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Air India disinvestment: Mohan Bhagwat getting emotionally chauvinistic about ailing carrier doesn't bode well for its future

If there had been that much love for the venerable Maharaja and his fleet, perhaps Air India would not have been mauled over the years by successive governments who treated it like their personal fiefdom. With an $8 billion debt and rising, the mismanaged airline isn’t exactly triggering a stampede to its door. Now that it is on a ventilator, we still want to save it by laying down conditions. Only Abu Dhabi-based Etihad has moved up the field of contenders but if it means facing a political fallout with RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat getting emotionally chauvinistic about the national carrier, even the few left in the race might balk at the increased risk factor and the hectoring from the Hindu right-wingers that will create a security problem. We have already seen it with fizzy drinks and fries, why not with flights. Who needs the headache?

Jet Airways followed Indigo in backing off its bid and despite ‘global interest in the sale’, it isn’t gaining much traction. Bids expressing interest are open till 14 May and it is believed government will announce a ‘victor’ within a fortnight.

You do not have to be an economist to know that the only way to save the airline is to pull it out of the clutches of the government which throttled the carrier ever since that black day when Morarji Desai dumped JRD Tata and ordered Air Chief Marshal PC Lal to take over. Till then Air India was arguably the finest airline in the world and the Maharaja the symbol of a first class carrier.

File image of RSS Sanghsarchalak Mohan Bhagwat. PTI

File image of RSS Mohan Bhagwat. PTI

We met the day JRD had just been told in the rudest way possible that he was no longer Chairman of Air India. But he kept his appointment. He talked about the decency of Air Chief Marshal Lal in calling him from Kolkata to say that Prime Minister Morarji Desai had ordered him to take over Air India from JRD and would that be fine by him and the former Air Chief asked for permission.

“I told the Air Marshal he must follow orders,” JRD said, “But that does not mean I have to like it.”

Nor do we have to continue to see the unending slide of a once proud global ambassador. Between a series of managing directors appointed wily-nily, unions that fell apart after the 1974 Indian Pilot Guild strike failed because of lack of staying power, the blatant shifting of power to the ministry with the Aviation Secretary’s out office serving as an ad hoc reservation centre for VIPs, an eclipsing of image by playing politics between Indian Airlines and Air India, the latter’s hierarchy incapable of understanding the cultural mindset of New Delhi vis-a-vis a more westernised Mumbai-based entity, the ever-decreasing affection for its unpredictability and a shabby fleet, the Maharaja was dethroned.

International economists Pravin Krishna and Vivek Dehejia had this to say; in fact, the only qualification required to realise that Air India is ripe for disinvestment is to have flown it in recent months or years. Flights are routinely delayed, the equipment is old and mouldering, and the prospect of good service depends upon the whims of the flight attendant who happens to be assigned to you. The airline has come to be seen, with ample justification, as a platform through which politicians and officials enjoy the perks of office, at everyone else’s expense.

Briefly, no one else really wants to fly Air India.

What Bhagwat has failed to grasp is the Marshal Maclughan concept of a global village. There is now no real percentage in labelling airlines as flag carriers or emissaries of the nation. They are just another business and should be run as a business. Point then is, does government have the fiat to do business or should it stay out of the market and only govern?

The answer is not blowing in the wind, it is in our face: Privatise.

Several airlines have shed patriotic fervor, among them British Airways. That self-indulgence has become passé. But no one will come with a cheque in hand if we get all huffy about keeping it in Indian hands. When KLM and Air France merged, they retained their identity even though they were now one.

What should be done with Air India is sell it to the highest bidder with the codicil that it will not lose its physical identity. Instead, rescued from government misuse, it will fly high again. Whether Indian-owned or foreign, nobody cares any more.


Updated Date: Apr 17, 2018 16:31 PM

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