On the morning of 28th January, I received a pop-up notification from a news app saying the Government has put up all its stake in Air India for sale. 

A 100% equity sale in the national carrier is according to many a welcome move. The toxic debt coupled with inefficient business practices, a reminiscent of the socialist era of Indian Economy, has crippled the airline. 

Air India is no longer the nation’s pride as it once used to be but instead has become a benchmark for poor airline service.

I remember sitting across the table with affluent entrepreneurs of Mumbai and Bangalore who invariably talk about flying, (I mean if you fly a lot you must be cool right?) and hearing one gentleman narrate his terrible experience while flying with a private airline.

He went on to say that despite paying a hefty sum, the service was so bad, he felt as if he was flying with Air India.

But for those of us who were not around to experience the yesteryear of Air India, let me quickly put forth the golden age of the airline when it belonged to one of the most respected business houses in the world – The Tatas.

Yes, for the uninitiated, Air India belonged to the Tatas and was robbed from them under the guise of nationalization.

These days the urban privileged kids of India, funded by their parents working in the private sector love to quote Marx and Lenin. They are ignorant about the debacles of socialism faced by India for four dark decades.

Nationalisation was one such debacle from which we have not yet fully recovered. Tatas watched as their brain child, the pride of their brand, was snatched from them. Once in the hands of our ever so inefficient bureaucracy the airline was crippled and brought down to its current situation.

Shamelessly, the government of India in 2009 asked Ratan Tata to help them revive the Airline, yet still refusing to let go off its control on the white elephant. In the financial year 2018-19, Air India reported an operating loss of INR 4600 Cr., a burden regularly lifted by the tax-payer.

This was not the first time Air India had suffered such losses. Our tax money has been compensating this iconic government failure for years.

Hence, I believe that it is indeed a welcome move and should be carried out the way Modi-Shah duo carries out major political decisions, swiftly and without looking back.

Which brings me to the mascot of this great Indian airline – the Maharaja. I feel that the new owners of the airline should go for a brand re-haul and change the mascot, or at least modify it. As someone who has worked in brand building, I can vouch for the importance of these symbols and the overall optics.

The action of taking optics seriously in itself is a break away from India’s past where Brand India was ignored to suit a particular political agenda. 

The Maharaja is an iconic depiction of this era and should be replaced by a smarter and more confident icon that represents the New-India.

Let us for a moment take a look at the old icon and its resemblance with the colonial understanding of an Indian servant. The image below will do all the talking but let me indulge in explaining it.

There is a striking resemblance between the image of a colonial Indian servant and Air India’s Mascot. Source: Wikipedia

Air-India is a service-based organisation and the Maharaja tries to bend in his waist in order to portray a polite gesture. The iconic Pagdi, the moustache and the shoes symbolize the royal service that the costumer can expect from the brand.

Outwardly, it seems harmless, and the callous Indian in me is tempted to ignore it the way we Indians ignore many such misnomers.

For example, the cruel invader Bakhtyar Khilji has been bestowed the honour of having a railway station named after him. The same railway station which takes you to the Nalanda University which Mr Khilji and his troops burned down to ashes.

The problem with changing the names, symbols and mascots is not the symbolic gesture behind them, nor is it the notion of rewriting a wrong. It is the people who do it.

Post-Independence, the self-inflecting masochistic Indian left was so engrossed in painting the whole nation secular, that it missed the underlying emotion of thousands of a-political common men and women of this country who happen to be Hindus.

The sycophancy around the rulers in New Delhi yelled at anyone who felt mildly proud of his or her lineage. Its result was the rise of Indian Right wing or Hindutva Wave which has currently swept across the country, not once but twice in 2014 and 2019.

These elected right-wing leaders like CM Yogi Adityanath start re-branding places and things. Their communal persona, created or real, takes away the lime light from the real reason why sometimes a re-branding exercise is necessary.

If Air- India decides to re-brand itself, it will happen in a sleek corporate fashion and the usual communal chaos around changing of names and symbols can be avoided.

Why should we change it then?

The Maharaja is bent forward and wears all the markings of a colonial slave. The change in the mascot will signify a change that has already happened on ground. We are talking about a millennial generation who proudly wears a kurta pyjama on the dance floor.

With all of us busy in criticizing the millennial generation, we have ignored the one thing that is absolutely positive about them. For the first time in Independent India we have a generation which is not ashamed of itself. Even after independence, we as a society have wasted decades, in bringing ourselves up to the western standards.

Music, art, food, films, urban development or education, we have always considered the western idea as the benchmark. It has certainly helped us in many ways but has kept us at a level where we are always just short of greatness.

As Minister for External Affairs Mr S. Jaishankar rightly said during an interview at Raisina Dialogue, “India is a prisoner of its past image and must get over it.”

It is time we shed our “Ji huzoor” image and rightfully claim the position of a respected, powerful yet extremely hospitable country. The romance the whole world has with the Taj Mahal must remain but not at the cost of Raisina Hill’s prestige.

The signs of this are clearly visible in the way young Indians carry themselves through out the world. From the informal yet posh boardrooms of Silicon Valley to the formal and elite halls of International diplomacy, young India is optimistic and driven to bring the change. It refuses to linger on in the past and can easily take a joke, without getting hurt. But at the same time, it is most certainly not ashamed of its past either.

If this New India is to fly through an Airline which wishes to re-brand itself then it needs to make the change and become more relatable to their customer. The mascot of the New Air-India should certainly match the persona of the New-Indian.

(This post was first published here on The Tilak Chronicle.)


The views and opinions expressed in the above article belong to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official opinion, policy or position of Lokmaanya.


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