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Plane Tales: Air India’s Return to the Tatas

Summary:
Aashique Ahmed Iqbal of Krea University is a historian of aviation in India. In TheIndiaForum, He has written this reflective essay on return of Air India to Tatas: From the perspective of Tata’s recent corporate history, there is reason to view the takeover of Air India with cautious pessimism. In a recent email exchange, Mircea Raianu pointed to the similarities between the Air India acquisition and Tata’s expensive purchase of Corus Steel in 2006, both of which were attempts to right what the group views as historical wrongs committed against the group. In the Corus case, by taking over Britain’s most important steel producer, Tata symbolically avenged itself against British industrialists who had dismissed the company’s capacity to make steel in the early 20th century. However,

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Aashique Ahmed Iqbal of Krea University is a historian of aviation in India. In TheIndiaForum, He has written this reflective essay on return of Air India to Tatas:

From the perspective of Tata’s recent corporate history, there is reason to view the takeover of Air India with cautious pessimism. In a recent email exchange, Mircea Raianu pointed to the similarities between the Air India acquisition and Tata’s expensive purchase of Corus Steel in 2006, both of which were attempts to right what the group views as historical wrongs committed against the group. In the Corus case, by taking over Britain’s most important steel producer, Tata symbolically avenged itself against British industrialists who had dismissed the company’s capacity to make steel in the early 20th century. However, the Corus acquisition has turned out to be both financially unrewarding and politically volatile. So too could Air India, in a period when the airline industry across the world is in the midst of a major contraction due to Covid-19 and climate change.

History may not offer clear lessons that can be used to predict Air India’s future. But the narratives around Air India’s past indicate how history is used as a resource to explain and at times to even justify present-day developments. Much of the impetus for this mobilisation of history as a resource comes from Tata itself. Well aware of the legitimacy conferred by history, JRD meticulously recorded and commemorated his achievements in the field of aviation.  Tata also commissioned glowing biographies and JRD has the distinction of being one of the few Indian industrialists to establish a dedicated archive. Some measure of the success of the historical narrative promoted by  Tata amongst middle-class Indians, can be had from the widespread celebration of Ratan Tata’s tweet on Air India.

Yet, examples and analogies from the past are of limited use outside their specific historical context. Taking the claims on history made by Tata and many in the press at face value carries many risks. This includes turning history into a vehicle for corporate aggrandizement, reducing it to a simple story of a struggle pitting the state against private enterprise and drawing dubious ‘lessons’ from the past. Failing to place events in their context serves not only to provide us with the wrong lessons but also to misunderstand the past.

Amol Agrawal
I am currently pursuing my PhD in economics. I have work-ex of nearly 10 years with most of those years spent figuring economic research in Mumbai’s financial sector.

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