Air India CEO Row: Why Ilker Ayci’s Appointment Was a Big Botch-Up

The big question is, how did the politically sensitive Tata group even consider a Turkish national for the role?

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Air India CEO Row: Why Ilker Ayci’s Appointment Was a Big Botch-Up

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There are many ways one can look at the surprise appointment and then the quick exit, even before the takeover, of Ilker Ayci as the CEO of recently privatised Air India. But one question before we talk of the controversial appointment and the equally controversial exit is this: how did the politically sensitive Tata group even consider a Turkish national for the role?

Here's where it is increasingly clear that CEO candidates should be reasonably vetted on political grounds where the company in question is, in effect, a national institution.

Barely three weeks ago, the man credited with a turnaround in Turkish Air was named as the first post-privatisation CEO of the carrier that was once a state monopoly with a maharaja as its icon. On the face of it, that seemed fine. But it is clear that Tata Sons chairman N. Chandrasekaran was treading on ultra-thin ice because it simultaneously emerged that Ayci was once an adviser to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he was the mayor of Istanbul. Erdogan has even attended Ayci's wedding.


Background Checks, Anyone?

True, business decisions are best taken on business criteria such as profitability and experience. True, Ayci, partially educated at Leeds in the UK, appears much like one of those global MBAs capable of being country-neutral in a clinical pursuit of business efficiency.

Ayci is credited with turning Turkish Airlines around twice – once after a failed coup in 2016 and then through the COVID-19 pandemic, without resorting to a state bailout or layoffs.

But look at the context, and there were red flags all over. Erdogan has in international diplomacy become a proxy for Pakistan, with Turkey invoking the Kashmir issue on behalf of Islamabad in global fora. Barely ten days before Ayci's appointment, Turkey's state-run Anadolu news agency ran a "Kashmir Solidarity Day" report.

That is like showing a red rag to a bull called India, and more so when the government that privatised Air India is run by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has a strong nationalist position on Kashmir. Leaving nothing to the imagination, and very understandably, the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, a wing of the BJP's ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, protested Ayci's appointment.

Ayci's official withdrawal statement talked of his backing out of the appointment that would have taken effect on 1 April due to the "undesirable colours" he was painted with.

What is even more surprising than the appointment flight that didn't take off is the fact that it required Home Ministry clearance, and even that seemed to have been informally given if some news reports are to be believed.


An Artiste Caught In a Political Trapeze

If you dig deeper, Erdogan is a nostalgic Turkish nationalist who likes to speak as if the Ottoman Empire, which once had a tentacle on modern Hyderabad, was still around. His Islamist rhetoric has reversed the secular order under which his bi-continental nation grew after the First World War.

Pakistan loves to fire its bullets from Erdogan's shoulders even as the rest of the diplomatic world is increasingly on a different plane.

Last year, at the UN General Assembly, Erdogan said he favoured a dialogue on Kashmir to resolve the row between India and Pakistan "within the framework of the United Nations resolutions" – which, in effect, echoed Islamabad's hardline claim on the territory.

In brief, the Ayci episode sounds like a big botch-up. A turnaround artiste caught in a political trapeze may make good copy for business writers, but not for the image-conscious Tata group.

As a lesson – if there is one – it is always wise to know the nature of a beast before trying to make someone ride it, as also the nature of the rider.

(The writer is a senior journalist. He tweets at @madversity. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Air India   ilker ayci 

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