My great-grandfather Singanallur Narayanachar Anandathirtha Rao was a junior employee in the judicial department of the Madras Presidency. Despite not being a college graduate, he managed to get “promoted” by virtue of his fluency in written and spoken English and by the simple expedient of joining the Masonic Lodge, the only institution run by our British rulers where harsh racism was not the rule. He retired as a Town Magistrate in an obscure part of the interior of our great Presidency. He developed a reputation as a prudent saver. Some sarcastic cousins referred to him as a miser.
Writing in October 2021, my focus is not on the career progression or personal traits of my worthy ancestor. What is important is that he was a shareholder of Air India Limited. Fortunately, he passed away before the paternalistic, omniscient, socialistic government of our independent republic nationalised Air India. My grandfather inherited the shares. As it often happens when these transactions smack of State sophistication, a rump of Air India Limited, a company with no business, was left alive as a private entity. This company decided to go in for “voluntary liquidation”, a process which, like so many others in free India, took an excruciatingly long time. Every few months, in the fifties and sixties, my grandfather would get a letter from a Parsi gentleman called Choksi about Air India’s voluntary liquidation.
I remember seeing the letters and being puzzled about what they meant. Now, why would an obscure south Indian official invest in the risky shares of an airline? As I think about it, I get both confused and elated. Anandathirtha Rao believed in India. He believed in modernity and the future. He believed in Parsis, and in J.R.D Tata. It is important to underline that my great-grandfather never took a flight. Air travel was too expensive and luxurious for him. But supporting Indian modernity and persons of integrity with a few thousand rupees, which he could barely afford, were very important in his mind.
Unlike my great-grandfather, who was fond of their Imperial Britannic Majesties, my grandfather was an admirer of Gandhi and the patriots. This remained the case even after Independence. My grandfather actually attended the Avadi Congress session in 1955 and he made it a point to take two of his grandchildren with him. He came back a disappointed man. He was unhappy about the increasing statist, socialist penumbra that was enveloping the country. If he had been alive today, my grandfather would have been 136 years old. But wherever he is, his spirit must be happy. The company that he was a proud shareholder of, and which went into voluntary liquidation, is now back in action with its original animal spirits intact or even enhanced. My grandfather was never able to boldly criticise the ever-nationalising Nehru. He always blamed it on Nehru’s bad advisors. Today, it hardly matters. The present dispensation has finally undone the mistake that we can attribute to Nehru or his advisors.
Japan and Korea practiced variants of what is currently referred to as ‘crony capitalism’. They encouraged Mitsubishi, Matsushita, Hyundai and Samsung to become world-beaters. We showed a strong determination to convert our robust capitalists into international dwarves. In 1945, the Tatas, Birlas and Dalmias were the three richest families in Asia. Our government chose to work against our businesspersons rather than with them. The so-called commanding heights of our economy would be dominated by an ever-growing octopus State. Airlines, hotels, steel, machine tools, heavy engineering, heavy electricals, watches, pharmaceuticals, fertilizers, power, telephones, bread — you name it — the citizens of this land of proud mercantile traditions would be denied entry rights and awkwardly named ministries in distant imperious Delhi would be in charge. The dirigiste and statist points of view still remain. We still have large sections of intellectual busybodies who would like to keep attacking Indian businesses and capitalists. Supporting them would be a sin in the eyes of these Mitrokhin agents.
It is creditable that the current dispensation has confronted this matter head-on. India needs to sing praises of its vaccine-makers, software professionals, oil-refiners and so many other world-beaters and potential world-beaters. If we cannot praise them, can we at least treat them fairly? The statist critics succeed in delaying matters, at the very least. The common accusation is that real estate was given away cheaply. The Air India delays have been worthwhile. We now have a template that separates real estate from businesses as we go through the disinvestment process. The use of “enterprise value” to bypass the vexatious issue of debt transfer also needs to be praised. We are well-set to pull off a few more Air Indias.
I took my first Air India flight in 1973, some years after my grandfather’s death, and it felt so good. My Alitalia flight a few months later was a disappointment. The flight attendant was not just condescending, she was rude. In 1973, racial slights were pretty common. Over the years, I made friends with several Air India employees and one could sense the sheer pride and enthusiasm in them. Some 15 years ago, I took the Bombay-New York flight and got talking with a flight attendant who opened the conversation by telling me that her husband was the pilot. What hit me most was that despite her knowledge that the company was in deep trouble, she was proud of working for Air India. And this is a recurring theme. When I think of the many ex-employees of Air India — Kishore, Ubie, Sajida, Parwana, Penny, Jayashree — I am amazed about the pervasive and enduring influence of the J.R.D and the Tata connection. The only two things that matter for any business are: happy customers and happy employees. Air India had both in droves and I am sure, going forward, it will revive both connections.
In any event, I called my travel agent and told him in no uncertain terms that I am quite happy losing all my British Airways, Lufthansa and Emirates mileage points. Going forward, he will only book me on Air India. After all, that is the minimum I can do for the spirit of shareholder Singanallur Narayanachar Anandathirtha Rao — once a shareholder in voluntary liquidation, now resurrected.
The author is an entrepreneur and writer. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)