Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata commonly known as JRD Tata needs no introduction. Known as the father of aviation, JRD Tata founded India’s first international airline- Air India and went on to become the longest-serving chairman of the Tata group.
In the 90s, the business magnet was interviewed by journalist Rajiv Mehrotra as part of his “In Conversation” series, which aired on Doordarshan. According to the website of Tata, the interview was taken in the spring of 1987, and it is the only known television interview of the legend. In the interview, JRD spoke on diverse issues, ranging from his professional life to India’s political influence, policies and governance. However, he particularly spoke in length about the lack of economic development under the leadership of India first PM Jawaharlal Nehru and the Congress legacy which followed.
JRD Tata’s modesty
In the interview, a part of which has now gone viral on social media, the man under whose chairmanship the assets of the Tata Group grew from US$101 million to over US$5 billion, modestly said that except for Air India, he did not create anything from scratch or anything entirely new. “It so happened that I inherited the situation”, said JRD. He said that it was already being led by a good team of people when he got into Tata’s after the demise of his father Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata in 1926, and that his job was to motivate them and “keep things going and going”.
To make light of his achievements at a young age, the philanthropist joked that he was appointed the chairman of the Tata group “prematurely” at the age of 34 and that his appointment was ‘a moment of mental aberration’.
How Morarji Desai unceremoniously terminated JRD Tata from Air India’s chairmanship
During the course of the conversation, JRD’s passion for Air India was evident as he said that Air India was the “only one thing which I may feel that I was wholly responsible for”.
JRD Tata opened up on how he continued as chairman of Air-India till 1978, until he was unceremoniously terminated from his services in February by the then Prime Minister Morarji Desai. “He didn’t inform me for 8 to 10 days, until I received a letter thanking me for my services”, he informed.
JRD recollected that his termination was “not unexpected” considering his “love-hate relationship with the then PM of India”. He said that though they were friends “the man was quite impossible to deal with”. Distressed by the disastrous act of vindictiveness, JRD says that “the way it was done was not pleasent”.
For the uninitiated, In 1978, Prime Minister Morarji Desai-led government unceremoniously dropped JRD from the chairmanship of Air India and the directorship of Indian Airlines. A year earlier, he had already been removed from the board of the Atomic Energy Commission on which he had served since its inception in 1948. JRD, who was in Jamshedpur then learnt about his termination through a radio announcement.
On his return to Bombay House on 9 February, JRD found a letter from the prime minister dated 4 February and dispatched from Delhi on 6 February. The press reports on 11 February finally clarified that he had been removed from the position with retrospective effect from 1 February.
In his reply, a terribly upset JRD who had served Air India for a quarter-century without remuneration of a single rupee stated: “I hope you will not consider it presumptuous of me to have expected that when the government decided to terminate my services and my forty-five years’ association with Indian civil aviation, I would be informed of their decision directly, and if possible, in advance of the public…”
The airline crew and public on a whole were extremely outraged at this sudden development as Air India was, at that time, a matter of deep national pride, and JRD was synonymous with Air India’s success and service. Morarji Desai’s decision had brought him some of the worst publicity since he took office as prime minister.
Stupid enough to think at one stage to join the Congress party: JRD Tata
When asked whether he ever felt the urge to participate in India’s freedom struggle, JRD says: “I was stupid enough to think at one stage to give up the idea of becoming a businessman or an Industrial leader and join the Congress party”. He continued saying that he was highly impressed by Jawaharlal Nehru, but then he realised that all that would mean getting arrested and going to jail, where he couldn’t have done anything significant.
Interestingly, one of the main reasons why Veer Savarkar had also written a mercy petition to the British was that he too thought what bravery it is to be in jail if one can serve in other ways being out of it. The Congress, especially the party’s senior leader Rahul Gandhi probably needs to understand this before taking cheap digs at the freedom fighter.
Jawaharlal Nehru made grave mistakes in policy decissions
Calling himself apolitical, JRD opined that he found himself opposed to the Congress government’s policies. Though he was an admirer and a friend to Jay Prakash Narayan and Jawaharlal Nehru, both of them, particularly Jawaharlal Nehru made grave mistakes in handling the political processes of India, said JRD.
“Nehru’s socialism is what I consider to be the wrong type of socialism, bureaucratism etc”. JRD said that he had never done any lobbying, rather he had been very vocal rather a critic, of the government policies which should have been implemented but were not by the then Congress government.
He continued that how for instance he was averse to the blind nationalisation of industries, which he thought would mean bureaucracy and lethargy. He said that there were many considerations which made him opposed to nationalisation.
British parliamentary system was not fit for India
The former chairman of the Tata conglomerate opined that the system of democratic governance which Congress adopted from the British was not fit for India. He said: “I was more and more concerned with the adoption of the British parliamentary system in India. I was convinced that it would not work in India”.
“I have often thought that if fate had decreed that Vallabhbhai Patel instead of Jawaharlal, would be the younger of the two, India would have followed a very different path and would be in better economic shape than it is today”, said JRD opining that Jawaharlal Nehru knew very little about economics and socialism and he was simply not even open to ideas. “Socialism could be established without the loss of the economic freedom of the majority of the people, but Jawahar was not even interested in listening”.
Here, JRD paused for a second to say that he needs to be very careful of what he says, probably hinting at the atmosphere of fear and intimidation for industrialists and bureaucrats when Congress government was at the helm of affairs in the country.
“When it came to issues like economics, nationalisation, bureaucracy, he (Jawaharlal Nehru) was not only disinterested he was unwilling to talk, and he developed a trick to avoid the conversation. JRD said that whenever he tried to initiate a conversation with the former PM on these issues he would look out of the window… and “I would get the hint that he is not interested”, recollected JRD.
Indira Gandhi was as disinterested as her father
JRD Tata disclosed that Indira Gandhi was similar, she too would not listen to things against socialism, but, however, her trick to avoid the conversation was slightly different from that of her father. Essentially when someone disagreed or argued against what she was doing, she would start picking up envelopes from the table and pulling out letters, “Practically hinting that look…I have other things to do”.
Basically, what JRD implied that both the father-daughter duo were never interested in the economic development of the country. One needs to pause and think here that if Nehru and Indira could brush-off someone as influential as JRD Tata, how would they have been dealing with dissent otherwise.
JRD Tata predicted political instability in the past
Asked about his political views, as the year when the interview happened was the election year, JRD continued that if Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress party is ousted by the Opposition then the same thing would happen what happened during the short tenure of Janata Party government. Basically the visionary had then warned that Congress’ loss would lead to political instability which is exactly what happened with smaller parties heading the government for short terms after the fall of Rajiv Gandhi govt. Whether it was led by V P Singh or Charan Singh or Chandrashekhar, all have been failures.
Saying so he said that whoever be at the helm of affairs as a citizen of the country he wants that the government works on issues like agriculture, employment, industrialisation and population control…”things on which very little is being done now”, said JRD.
Licence Raj- the bureaucratic muddle for ‘make in India’.
Asked about his opinion on industrial development and modernisation which is a key to economic growth, JRD said that only modern equipment can make manufacturing cheaper and attractive, but labour unions are averse to modernisation and the problem is that labor unions are backed by politicians.
He goes on to speak of how industrialisation was scuttled during those days because of the Licence-permit Raaj. He said that companies need permission for everything, “had this been a government hotel, even to move a chair in this room permission would have been required”, exclaimed JRD. At that time companies could not expand capacity without permission, also new companies were not allowed in many sectors, so existing companies had no incentive to innovate. Basically what JRD Tata implied was that the Licence Raj was the bureaucratic hurdle for ‘make in India’.
On Black money
“When I joined business, there was no black money. There was no corruption, for whom were you to corrupt? When you did not have a system of government control where you had to get a permit for everything. In the early days, taxes were also very low. Black money will always be there as long as taxes and controls are high,” said JRD.
Based on his half a century of experience under different systems of government, the former Tata Group chairman affirmed that black money will always be there till taxes are high and the government controls are high.
Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata, who was born on July 29, 1904, is the recipient of two of India’s highest civilian awards — the Padma Vibhushan and the Bharat Ratna. JRD Tata is not only remembered as a great industrialist but also as a keen aviator.
JRD Tata joined the family business as an apprentice and became the chairman of Tata & Sons at the age of 34. He also led the group to diversify and oversaw that Tata Group becomes one of the most trusted brands in India. It was under his leadership that Tata Group diversified into aviation after he formed an aviation department called Tata Airlines which later became Air India. In fact, JRD Tata is widely considered to be the Father of Indian Aviation for his pioneering role in civil aviation.
The full interview can be viewed here: