How Nehru found ways to shut up Air India founder JRD Tata

How Nehru found ways to shut up Air India founder JRD Tata

JRD Tata in a 1986 interview described how Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi developed "polite ways to shut him up"

“Air India, under the leadership of Mr J.R.D. Tata, had, at one time, gained the reputation of being one of the most prestigious airlines in the world. Tatas will have the opportunity of regaining the image and reputation it enjoyed in earlier years. Mr J.R.D. Tata would have been overjoyed if he was in our midst today,” tweeted Tata Sons Chairman Emeritus Ratan Tata on Friday after DIPAM Secretary Tuhin Kanta Pandey announced that that group’s Rs 18,000-crore quoted enterprise value was indeed the winning bid for the white elephant that Modi government has been trying to sell.

As life comes full circle for Air India and Tata Group, which having founded the airline in 1932, losing it to nationalisation in 1953, and emerging the winning bidder for India’s flagship air carrier in 2021, it is pertinent to note the ordeal of the founder Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata in navigating tough policy waters in a socialist regime under Jawaharlal Nehru and daughter Indira Gandhi subsequently.

In an old interview, the Tata Group patriarch, discussed at length the problems faced by businessmen like him in dealing with politicians at a time when profit and private enterprise were dirty words, or at least was fashionable to be treated as such. It also brings forth snubs faced by him personally in dealing with politicians of the day.

In the 1986 interview, JRD had described how Nehru and Mrs G “developed their polite ways” of telling him to “shut up”. JRD said Nehru knew that he disagreed with all economic policies and even foreign policies of his government and was never able to discuss economic matters with him.

How Nehru found ways to shut up Air India founder JRD Tata
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“He (Nehru) and Mrs Gandhi later developed this similar little polite way of telling me to shut up. Jawaharlal, when I started to bring up the subject of economic policy, would turn around and look out of the window. Mrs Gandhi did something else,” JRD said. When probed further on what Indira Gandhi did, JRD said, “she started picking up envelopes, cutting open the envelopes and pulling out letters. It was a polite indication that she was bored”.

Speaking about Rajiv Gandhi’s administration, JRD said the leader was more inclined towards younger people and met Ratan Tata several times. However, the founder of then Tata Airlines “never had the opportunity”, he said in the interview.

“All these years since freedom, no one in the Government of India, any of the prime ministers, ever came to me, or sent for me, and said, J, what do you think? Just this question,” said in the 1986 interview.

Tata Group’s website on JRD Tata also acknowledges that although the second-generation Tata scion shared an “unusual friendship with Nehru” it also was clear there was no love lost between the two when it comes to socialist economic policies and especially nationalisation of Air India.

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