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Praiseworthy Effort

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The bid by employees, with backing from financiers, to buy Air India is exactly the kind of spirit that inspired JRD Tata to launch the airline in the first place – the desire to do something not just to make a fast buck, but to establish a footprint on the sands of time. It is clear that they are proud of the Air India brand and what it has represented over the years as the ‘National Carrier’. It was a mistake in the first place to have nationalised it, not only because it represented a ‘short-cut’ to building an institution, but also because it greatly undermined the Tata type of ‘nationalist’ entrepreneurship that could have inspired India’s business class. The socialist model that tended to appropriate the achievements of others and, quickly, label them as its own, helped promote largely a crony class of capitalists, who learned to excel in developing business models that helped skim the subsidies so liberally provided by government. Businesses run by government, many of them unnecessarily in the public sector, were driven by bureaucrats into the ground. Had it not been for the wake-up call of 1962, even the Indian Army would have been crippled by this approach.

The AI employees may not succeed in their attempt and, even if they do, there is no guarantee that they will be able to run the organisation successfully. However, it is a template that can be tried by others. Nobody knows better than the employees about the intricacies of their company, its strengths and weaknesses. The socialist dream of workers owning the means of production was sought to be achieved forcibly in communist countries. It proved a failure. China had to resort to private ownership. However, if workers come to own a company through a process of evolution, having learned the art and science of cooperative functioning, they have a better chance. There is also the hurdle posed by internal politics and manipulative opportunism that can sink any enterprise, but it should be known that – in a case like Air India – the employees are not exactly shop floor workers. This is why everybody should wish them all the best. If they succeed, they will inspire many others to think entrepreneurially instead of remaining fixed in the ‘naukar’ mentality.