The one thing you could say about the Air India sale is that entire generations of vested interests in Delhi never thought it was possible.
Allow me to explain: The Air India sale is in fact not merely the sale of an airline. It stands for something more fundamental.
From the time Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru nationalised nine private airlines and merged them into two state-owned enterprises, Indian Airlines and Air India International, using the Air Corporations Act, 1953, the idea of Air India has stood for the process through which one of the world’s most successful airlines, Air India, was destroyed through the apathy, lethargy and graft that is, often, state-ownership.
It symbolised the destruction of entrepreneurial energies. But there is more. The American Centre for Strategic and International Studies publishes a tracker on Indian economic reforms in which each reform is put under different levels of difficulty – low, medium, high. The privatisation of Air India was noted under ‘high’ – tougher in their assessment than bringing down the corporate tax rate and allowing 50% foreign investment in the defence sector.
The question to ask is, why should the privatisation of one airline be tougher than bringing down the corporate tax rate or expanding foreign investment in a sector as important as defence?
This is because for many of the years that Air India was under government ownership, it had become more a perk and less a commercial airline. It was usual for government functionaries at all levels to demand and receive privileges – from upgrades to business class or above, to even, in some cases, making a flight wait as very important person made his way to the airport.
Air India had become a classic example of how privilege works within a state, how it is camouflaged, and how the taxpayer is made to pay for it all. Air India wasn’t an airline, it was part of the benevolent, to use author Upamanyu Chatterjee’s memorable words, mammaries of the welfare state. It could still be forgiven if the welfare benefitted many people. But the welfare here was concentrated to a very few, and only if they carried government credentials or an Air India employee badge.
Air India had become a relic of a different era, when in the name of the people, all things of corruption were possible. Even in the nomenclature of corruption, it was dishonest.
The sale of Air India was perceived to be highly difficult because of the number of very important people who benefitted regularly from it. One joke when the announcement of its sale came was that due to the Covid-19 induced lockdowns, perhaps many of these people had forgotten what all they forced Air India to deliver – and that’s why the deal went through.
Air India also underlines something that has been debated again and again – how ‘reformist’ is Prime Minister Narendra Modi? It highlights that Modi is fundamentally reformist by instinct.
Whether it is ending retrospective taxation or raising the cap on foreign direct investment in insurance, Modi is tackling some of the most intractable issues of the Indian economy. They are being spread over time to ensure less disruption from any political economic fallout of reforms.
What is happening because of these reforms is significant, and they should be understood in conjunction with two other elements – IPOs of start-up unicorns (companies with a valuation of $1 billion or more) and technology facilitating participation of greater number of people in stock markets.
Earlier this year, Modi spoke in Parliament about the importance of wealth creators in a society. This was a pivot from a certain ambivalence that had long plagued the Indian approach to business. Even when we eulogised enterprise, it was restricted to big cities, and a handful of companies.
Through a combination of reforms, IPOs of unicorns, and more people using tech to invest in the markets, a different layer of interest in wealth generation is being unlocked in Indian society.
One of the key takeaways of this change in mindset is surely that there is no such thing as a free ticket.