As I read and watch the whole shindig about the free falling Air India, I just can’t help but go back to 1987 when I was a young Bombay based hack (Yes, it was called Bombay back then!). Rajiv Gandhi was still hugely popular and corporate India was delighted with his efforts to help India Inc. Rajiv Gandhi wanted to improve the performance of state run organizations and the most prominent initiatives were directed towards Doordarshan and Air India. A young, dynamic Rajan Jaitley who had a successful stint in ITC was made the MD of Air India and given the job of revamping the ailing (yes, it was ailing back then too!) carrier. A young Ratan Tata too was inducted to the Board as a sentimental gesture; after all, Air India was the brainchild of J.R.D Tata. Back then also, there were strong rumours of a rift in the Board and allegations of mismanagement. Yours truly had even written a story that-if my memory serves me right-started off by asking: “What was Ratan Tata doing when Rajan Jaitley was busy redesigning air hostess uniforms and changing the crockery at Air India?” Last known, Jaitley was operating out of London and Delhi, running a financial services consultancy. Around that time, another young high flier called Harsh Vardhan was running the ambitious Vayudoot, the third state owned airline after Indian Airlines and Air India. Vayudoot claimed to service more than 100 destinations and I recall how everyone was going gaga over this wonder boy and his Vayudoot magic. Most hacks talked of the “close relations” Harsh Vardhan had with the sons of a certain Union Minister who then lived near Hotel Le Meridien. Of course, Vayudoot crashed into extinction very soon after that hype. Last known, Vardhan was a consultant for the private airline MDLR.
Why am I on this nostalgia trip and what has the past got to do with the present controversy that rages around Air India? Well, the point is, the more things change, the more they remain the same. It was natural then for those privileged enough to fl y to curse the shoddy attitude and service of “unionized” employees of IA and AI (Only the brave dared to fl y Vayudoot whose aircraft oft en had doors suddenly opening in mid-flight!). And now, the Civil Aviation Minister is peddling the same arguments blaming the “unionized” employees and the crisis facing commercial aviation for the disaster looming at AI. Most in the media seem to be lapping up this argument.
But hang on for a while. How can you blame employees for gross mismanagement that has persisted decade after decade? How about the politicians and the clutch of IAS officers who now routinely head the carrier? The simple fact is: Air India is unluckier than its public sector counterparts. In other public sector companies, it usually only one cabinet minister, a few state ministers and their cronies who have the privilege of financially raping and pillaging the company. In the case of Air India, every M.P, every senior bureaucrat and most state level politicians of India enjoy that freedom to rape and plunder. And they do it brazenly in the form of free flights, lucrative contracts and what not. That is why Air India is on its last legs now. Why blame only the employees?