JRD Tata established the aviation industry in India when he started Tata Airlines, later known as Air India& |  Photo Credit: Twitter
“Air India, under the leadership of Mr J.R.D. Tata, had, at one time, gained the reputation of being one of the most prestigious airlines in the world. Tatas will have the opportunity of regaining the image and reputation it enjoyed in earlier years. Mr J.R.D. Tata would have been overjoyed if he was in our midst today,” tweeted Tata Sons Chairman Emeritus Ratan Tata on Friday after DIPAM Secretary Tuhin Kanta Pandey announced that that group’s Rs 18,000-crore quoted enterprise value was indeed the winning bid for the white elephant that Modi government has been trying to sell.
As life comes full circle for Air India and Tata Group, which having founded the airline in 1932, losing it to nationalisation in 1953, and emerging the winning bidder for India’s flagship air carrier in 2021, it is pertinent to note the ordeal of the founder Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata in navigating tough policy waters in a socialist regime under Jawaharlal Nehru and daughter Indira Gandhi subsequently.
In an old interview, the Tata Group patriarch, discussed at length the problems faced by businessmen like him in dealing with politicians at a time when profit and private enterprise were dirty words, or at least was fashionable to be treated as such. It also brings forth snubs faced by him personally in dealing with politicians of the day.
In the 1986 interview, JRD had described how Nehru and Mrs G “developed their polite ways” of telling him to “shut up”. JRD said Nehru knew that he disagreed with all economic policies and even foreign policies of his government and was never able to discuss economic matters with him.
“He (Nehru) and Mrs Gandhi later developed this similar little polite way of telling me to shut up. Jawaharlal, when I started to bring up the subject of economic policy, would turn around and look out of the window. Mrs Gandhi did something else,” JRD said. When probed further on what Indira Gandhi did, JRD said, “she started picking up envelopes, cutting open the envelopes and pulling out letters. It was a polite indication that she was bored”.
Speaking about Rajiv Gandhi’s administration, JRD said the leader was more inclined towards younger people and met Ratan Tata several times. However, the founder of then Tata Airlines “never had the opportunity”, he said in the interview.
“All these years since freedom, no one in the Government of India, any of the prime ministers, ever came to me, or sent for me, and said, J, what do you think? Just this question,” said in the 1986 interview.
Tata Group’s website on JRD Tata also acknowledges that although the second-generation Tata scion shared an “unusual friendship with Nehru” it also was clear there was no love lost between the two when it comes to socialist economic policies and especially nationalisation of Air India.
“The Air India saga certainly hurt JRD, but he wasn’t the kind to bear a grudge. Nehru insisted that he continue to head the national carrier and that’s what JRD did, right up to 1977, when another act of government forced him out”.
Indira Gandhi, when she came back to power, reinstated JRD to the chairmanship, but by then he no longer had the appetite for the responsibility.
Air India commentators believed that fall of state-run Air India began when the then Prime Minister Morarji Desai unceremoniously dumped JRD from the position of Chairman in 1978. It is said that the government was looking for a scapegoat when an Air India Boeing 747 flight carrying 218 passengers crashed into the sea off Mumbai coast killing everyone on board.
However, it was Mrs G that spoke out against the decision and came out in support of JRD, according to a letter written by her to the businessman at the time. A copy of the letter was shared by Former Union Minister and Congress leader Jairam Ramesh, on Saturday, with his Twitter followers.
“I am so sorry that you are no longer with Air India. Air-India must be as sad at the parting as you yourself. You were not merely Chairman Man the founder and nurturer who felt deep personal concern It was this and the meticulous care you gave to the smallest detail including the decor and the sarees of the hostesses, which raised Air India to the international level and indeed to the top of the list We were proud of you and of the Airline. No one can take this satisfaction from you nor belittle Govt’s debt to you in this respect. There was some misunderstanding between us but it was not possible for me to let you know of the pressures under which I had to function and the rivalries within the Ministry of Civil Aviation I would not like to say more With all good wishes,” conveyed Indira Gandhi, who was then not in power, to JRD, after the sudden ouster.