Sunday 18 April 2021

Flying the skies with the Maharaja ( Sunday Guardian)


During the decade when the UPA was in office, the airline crashed to the ground so far as its financials were concerned.

Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata was that overused word, a visionary. JN Tata had founded Mumbai’s Taj Mahal hotel in 1903 when he was denied entry into a hotel in that city “because he was Indian”. It was acceptable to the Colonel Blimps to have Indians serve at tables or make the beds, but allowing someone from that ethnicity to enjoy the privilege of staying in a room of whatever hostelry it was that excluded the founder of the House of Tata was “not cricket” to the racist mindset that has fortunately diminished considerably in size in the UK but has yet to disappear. The manner in which life was made impossible for Meghan and Harry, the eagerness with which the Prince was stripped even of his His Royal Highness title, may have been due to curmudgeonly elements within the palace staff or to the usual jealousy between sisters-in-law. If the second, it adds strength to those who argue that Queen Elizabeth and her children and grandchildren do not have a racist bone in their bodies. However, the spectre of being a bit too Churchillian in the wrong way will hover above Buckingham Palace until Meghan and Harry are reinstated in rank to what they were before they left not just their family home but the country itself. 2021 is not 1937, the year in which Edward VIII had to abdicate the throne because he insisted on marrying Wallis Warfield Simpson. Marrying a divorced spouse was not a cardinal sin then, nor should it be now, although this may not be the view of traditionalists linked to the Windsors who believe that any divergence from Standard Operating Procedure in the 1930s would inflict disaster on the British royals. Fortunately for the Crown, Queen Elizabeth has moved with the times, and many expect that she will ensure the return into the fold of HRH Prince Harry and the bride of his choice, Her Highness Meghan. Such a move would strengthen the bonds of sentiment that individuals across the world have for the British monarch, even if some do not share a similar view of the institution of the monarchy. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi effected a cultural revolution in India when she stripped royals of their privy purses and titles (saving Rs 60 crores for the exchequer) in 1969. No Prime Minister in Britain thus far has followed her example of erasing with the stroke of a pen the solemn promise made by Deputy Prime Minister Vallabhbhai Patel to the princes in exchange for the states they ruled, some for centuries. Less than a decade later, after having first imposed the Emergency in 1975 and then made restitution for that by holding free elections in 1977, Indira Gandhi was voted out of office despite having torn up the Covenant entered into between the princes and the Union of India. All in the name of the people of India.

Another Tata who was a visionary was Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata. It would be unfair to blame him for the complexity of his full name, for JRD was not at fault but his illustrious ancestors. Among the assets he created was Air India, which began as Tata Airlines in 1932. In 1953, Jawaharlal Nehru ensured that the government he headed was the majority stakeholder, although JRD Tata continued as the Chairman of the Board. The inventive mind of Bobby Kooka ensured that Air India (the Flying Maharajah) became well known across the world. During the decade when the UPA was in office, the airline crashed to the ground so far as its financials were concerned. Even the Frequent Flyer program was handed over to some company of indeterminate ownership. This columnist has had a soft corner for the airline ever since the days when it was the only option available. All that Air India needs is a complete overhaul of its aircraft seats and entertainment systems to once again make it among the finest airlines in the world. A lot of prize slots in several countries were handed out as confetti during the UPA period, but a few good ones somehow escaped this process. As has from the beginning of freedom been commonplace in India, there does not seem to have been any accountability concerning the individuals who crash landed the airline financially. Until he is able to introduce much greater transparency and accountability in the policy and implementation process, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s plan for India to emerge as an economic superpower may get delayed beyond three terms. Thanks to whichever entity is in control of the Maharajah’s frequent flyer program, this columnist was a few weeks ago abruptly downgraded from the highest to the lowest class in the program. The crime was that he hardly flew at all during the course of the pandemic. Were Air India to have offered reimbursement of the costs of treatment of Covid-19 for customers, the swift downgrade would have made more sense than it did in a situation where flying at all became impossible and is still difficult. Fortunately for his faith in the Maharajah, their earlier class was swiftly restored to all members in recognition of the need for citizens to observe the protocol needed to avoid Covidiot status.

This columnist was among those who flew in the first direct India-US Air India flight (from Mumbai to New York, if memory serves right). Designer on board wear and the usual warm and uniquely Indian onboard Air India service ensured a superb flight. After dinner and a normal night’s sleep given the length of the flight, the aircraft closed in on its destination. There is talk of Air India getting new management. Whoever that is should recreate the excellence that J.R.D. Tata ensured in the years that he was in command of the controls.

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