M D Nalapat
NOT for the first time, this columnist arrived in Washington from Delhi on a direct flight on Air India. The Airline has direct flights to as many as five destinations in the US, and is a pleasure to fly. Arriving on a weekend into Washington means that traffic into the town is light, and progress towards the destination rapid. Almost all the taxis are driven by immigrants, many from African countries such as Ethiopia or Somalia, as also from Pakistan and India. On 20 October Air India flight 103 from Delhi to Washington, Cabin In-charge Ketan Kishor and hostesses Aishwarya Vasist and Nazneen Shah were politeness and efficiency itself, making sure that the journey was comfortable. Certainly some of the aircraft are less than new, but the crew make a lot of difference on Air India flights.
This is an Airline that has systematically been hollowed out by politicians, beginning in 1989 when Prime Minister V P Singh grounded for an extended period of time the Airline’s new A-320 fleet even after it was clear than the crash of one such aircraft at Bangalore was due to pilot error. The Civil Aviation Minister most responsible for the decline of Air India has been Praful Patel, whose personal wealth has gone up even while the government departments in his charge languished. The “high flying” Minister brought Air India to the ground in a crash of its financials. The reasons why are clear. For example, Go Air, Indigo and Air India bought identical aircraft during the same period at different prices, the rate per aircraft paid by Air India being much higher than what was charged to Indigo and Go Air. Till now, none of those responsible have been brought to account for such an anomaly. There is a culture of impunity in India, where retired and serving bureaucrats get apoplectic with rage whenever one of their members is sought to be held accountable for patent misdeeds, and so it has been with Air India.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has the capability of taking the decisions needed to rescue the national carrier and bring it back to health. He could write off much of the (anyway irrecoverable) debts of Air India and thereby bring the balance sheet back to health. He could enforce accountability o the top four individuals who are responsible for making the Airline almost a basket case, so that some other carriers get an advantage. The higher the status and power of the policymaker, the more severe the punishment needs to be. In contrast, the system in India has been to spare those at the top and punish only those at the bottom. Modi needs to change this, and the incarceration of former Union Finance Minister Chidambaram and the investigation into some of the decisions taken during the Manmohan Singh era by Praful Patel indicate that the Prime Minister has finally managed to get a recalcitrant bureaucracy to act in the matter of VVIP corruption.Especially in China but also in Pakistan, far more VVIPS are in jail than is the case in India, and Modi needs to bring the number of VVIP arrests up to the levels achieved by India’s neighbours.
Meanwhile, across the world a whispering campaign has been unleashed against Air India, that the Airline is on the edge of closure. Very recently, a travel agent refused to buy Air India tickets for this columnist from Delhi to Colombo and back, because he was convinced the Airline was days away from being shut down. The predators who are seeking to break up Air India into bits and pieces after buying the Airline at a low price are behind such a campaign of calumny. However, the tens of millions who voted for Modi believe that the Prime Minister will not allow the shame of the national career being handed over to corporate vultures who would pick at the very bones of the Airline. They are confident that he will revive Air India and keep the Maharajah flying high in the skies in the manner it deserves. Greed is what is causing a reaction against capitalism, even in the US. In Hong Kong, the fact that it is the most unequal high income territory on the globe has definitely played a part in the riots that are taking place there.
Land sharks have made housing unaffordable for most young people, and they are angry. Breaking up Air India would be an act surpassing even the misdeeds of the past, yet this is what a section of the bureaucracy (in league with corporate predators) is seeking to do. Such predators operate not with their own funds but with money borrowed from state owned banks. Such public cash is what funds their lavish lifestyles. Beginning with Vijay Mallya, they need to be made to pay back what they owe the banks, and if they do so, they should be pardoned while being banned permanently from accessing funds from state owned banks. The Maharajah has a worried expression, as vultures circle around a once proud Airline that is still in many ways among the best. The only way in which such predators can be sent away is for Prime Minister Modi to act to save the national carrier from those eager to kill it and feast on the remains.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.