Tuesday, October 12, 2021

The Maharaja is back home

When a government decides to privatise something it owns, there is usually lots of protests from different quarters. 

Among the fears are that either it will go to wrong hands who will mismanage it or it will turn into an elite establishment accessible only to the wealthy.

Last week, when India government finally completed the privatisation process of its national airline -- Air India -- there were hardly any murmurs of disapproval. On the contrary, it was sort of a celebration! 

The primary reason: the airline has now gone back to its original owner -- the Tata group, a company founded in 1869, by a Parsi entrepreneur named Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata. 

The cost: ₹18,000 crore or around $2,387 million.

The Maharaja is Air India's mascot.

The famous Amul butter advertisement said it the best:

(Amul butter is arguably the most famous in that category and the ad campaign - like the one above - that plays on words, has been running since 1967 pegged on current events, and is very popular.)

As a government enterprise, Air India hasn't been able to keep up with the cut-throat competition in the private sector, and it is in the red. 

I think on various counts the Tata Group is the most successful Indian company. We will get to that in some other post.

Suffice to say that they have been around for as long as 152 years and they have a presence in such a diverse portfolio of products and services -- from salt, steel and software to jewellery, hospitality and aviation, and more!

Hopefully, the Tatas will be able to nurse the airline back to the glorious days. 


Air India was founded in 1932 by J R D Tata (Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata), the 4th chairman of the Tata Group.

Tata was the first person in India to get a pilot's licence, and he flew India's first aircrft. It transported mails during the British time, and later began India's first passenger flights.

Air India was born as Tata Air Services which was renamed later as Tata Airlines. In 1947, soon after Independence, the government acquired 49% of stakes and in 1953, the airline was fully nationalised.

With the airline flying to international destinations, it was not just a company growing its business, it was also the image of India abroad, as Tata saw it. 

The legend has it that Tata, a perfectionist, got on to the flights, and looked closely at the reactions of the passengers and took down notes. He then passed them on to the staff appreciating them or pointing out areas that need improvement. 

He didn't want any complaints from the passengers, and he didn't want any airline that was better than Air India in the world. And he achieved that to a great extent.


In the 1980s, Rajiv Mehrotra ran a very popular interview programme on the national broadcaster Doordarshan. (India in those didn't private TV channels, the only channel was the government one.)

One of the interviewees was J R D Tata. Here it is. 44 minutes long.

In those days, Tata Steel brought out a series of very popular TV jingles titled "We also make steel". It spoke a lot about how the company saw itself. Here it is: 


  1. Hari OM
    I do think airlines are one of the businesses that do better as private enterprise and there is no doubt that Tata have good standards. (I've added to my watch later for the vid.) Though in the current travel climate, one wonders if any of them can truly thrive. YAM xx

  2. Interesting that it's been bought back - and that the decision is being celebrated. I hope that there's still money to be made in air travel - atm it's all looking very quiet on the international airline flights. I suppose flights within India will help balance that.

  3. I am glad Air India has returned to private sector. Passengers can expect better service. Air India employees used to go out of the way in not helping the passengers. I am sure this will change.

  4. I am VERY glad Air India returned to the private sector. I predict that there will be a not distant time when it is no longer in the red. I thoroughly enjoyed the history of the Airline, and I'm glad you put it here to read. I have great interest in India ; its past and future as I have Indian friends.

  5. It's nice to read good news for a change. ~nods~ I liked that advertisement and cartoonish opening to the interview program. :) Rajiv Mehrotra sounds like a true gentleman. And J. R. D. Tata was amazingly humble! His passing was a true loss to the business and civilian worlds. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Quite a diversified company. Hopefully they'll be bale to turn the airline around again.

  7. It sounds as if it is in good hands, Pradeep. With their historical connection, I hope the airline will be nursed lovingly back to health with the Tatas.

  8. Interesting... have been wanting to read more about how this Airline was with Tata earlier. Thanks for suggesting the interview. the very mention of Parsi Business Men, makes me nostalgic about Bombay & its long going relationship with Parsi Biz community.

  9. Hi Pradeep - Tata feature in so many countries now - I always note what it's doing. Love the 'Good Buy' as too the cartoon at the end ... I would like to watch the film at some stage. Good luck to Tata in this day and age - but travel will be back, and I'm sure there's lots of air travel still happening in India. I know Tata steel is here in the UK - cheers and thanks for this - Hilary