NEW DELHI: Recently, while browsing the net on a lazy afternoon, a story popped up which immediately caught my attention. “Singapore Airlines Pulls Out of Air India bid,” screamed the headline of the story written 20 years ago.
It was a Saturday. The previous day, another bidder — the billionaire Hinduja brothers — had to withdraw after the law ministry red-flagged their bid, saying they did not meet the strict guidelines set by the government for taking part in the privatisation process. With SIA pulling out, only the Tatas were left in the fray and the determined efforts mounted by the then disinvestment minister Arun Shourie came crashing down.
Years rolled by. Political opposition, vested interests and bureaucratic lethargy prevented any effort to sell the loss-making behemoth. The airline continued to pile up debt and services nose-dived.
In 2017, the Niti Aayog was asked to prepare a list for privatisation of state-run firms. A senior official of the government’s policy think tank spoke to TOI. Several times during the interaction, the official said why Air India should be sold off. But he never categorically mentioned that any recommendations had been made. After debating for a long time. We decided to go ahead with the story.
Some months later in May 20I7, the then finance minister Arun Jaitley, while participating on a Doordarshan show titled ‘Teen Saal Modi Sarkar’, revealed the government planned to privatise Air India. Jaitley said that in 1999-2000, during his brief stint as disinvestment minister, he had said, “Please disinvest Air India, otherwise there will be nothing left to disinvest.”
Jaitley then went on to say that the government was open to the idea of inducting a strategic partner for Air India and that the civil aviation ministry was exploring all possibilities. It was ‘breaking news’, as they say. Soon, the process was started to sell 76% in Air India, Air India Express & AISATS. But finally no bidders emerged as investors did not have any appetite for an airline where the government still had some stake left.
Finally, a third attempt to sell the airline was launched in 2019. The government made it clear that it wanted to exit the airline 100% and also sweetened the deal to make it attractive for investors.
That sums up the more than two decades of twists and turns in the Maharaja’s journey to escape a shutdown. But it piled up a mountain of debt. Now, the government has been able to finally sell the airline. Have a safe flight with your new owners and old mates, Air India