It takes a special kind of naivete and geopolitical tone-deafness for a group like the Tatas to land in the midst of a controversy by appointing Turkish national Ilker Ayci as chief executive officer and managing director of Air India. However good Ayci may be as an airline turnaround specialist, the last thing the Tatas need right now is a political controversy surrounding his appointment.
The Tatas would do well to withdraw his nomination quietly and look for another candidate, not just because of Ayci’s Turkish nationality or his closeness to Turkey’s Islamist President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but because it is foolish to have somebody at the helm whose very identity can make people look closer at his every decision, or suspect some plot against the country.
What goes for Ayci applies equally to, say, other kinds of controversial choices that the Tatas could have made. Examples: an Israeli (who would have faced a blockade in the lucrative Gulf sector), an Iranian (who would have faced western suspicions), or a person of Indian origin married to a Pakistani national (for obvious reasons), et al.
Consider what kind of controversy will ignite on social media if, for commercial reasons, Ayci decides that only halal meat will be served on Air India; or if Erdogan decides to up the ante against India on Kashmir or the ongoing hijab row. Air India, at a time when it needs to concentrate all its efforts on turning around the limping airline, does not need a CEO who has to be constantly looking over his shoulders to see who is gunning for him, or which political landmine he will have to avoid next.
But let us not ignore the elephant in the room: Ayci’s links to Erdogan, who is no friend of India or Indian interests. Erdogan is an Islamic supremacist pure and simple, and Ayci is not some distant acquaintance of Erdogan. He was adviser to Erdogan when the latter was Mayor of Istanbul. Erdogan later made him chairman of Turkey’s Investment Support and Promotion Agency, and head of the Turkish national airline. Ayci was the airline’s chairman till 27 January, the day the Indian government handed over Air India to the Tatas. Ayci resigned from Turkish Airlines the same day, which suggests that the Tatas had sounded him out well before they gave him the job at Air India.
The problem may not be Ayci himself, but his linkage to Erdogan, who is a dyed-in-the-wool Islamist whose dreams of a global caliphate would make the Muslim Brotherhood seem like a Gandhian outfit.
Some 15 months ago, in a video message delivered to the Muslim American Society on 27 November 2020, Erdogan did precisely this. He said, inter alia: “Brothers and sisters, this year, we had to fight not only the Covid-19 virus, but also the ‘Virus of Islamophobia’, which spreads faster….In many countries, it has now become ordinary to marginalise Muslims because of their faith, languages, names or appearance. The burning of the Quran in Sweden, the tearing of the Quran in Norway, the promotion of cartoons insulting the Prophet (PBUH) in (the) name of freedom of the press… in France are just some of the attacks on our sacred values. The terrorist attack that took place in New Zealand last year, in which 52 of our brothers were killed, has exposed the threat we face as humanity. Six Muslims lost their lives in a mosque attack in Canada in 2017. Earlier in 2015, our three brilliant children were shot dead in their homes and martyred in Chapel Hill town by a racist.”
Erdogan also believes that the West’s assimilationist policies are inimical to Islam, and has no qualms in using conquest to expand the territories of Islam. He has said, “In our civilisation, conquest is not occupation or looting. It is establishing the dominance of the justice that Allah commanded in the [conquered] region….First of all, our nation removed the oppression from the areas that it conquered. It established justice. This is why our civilisation is one of conquest.”
A close Erdogan advisor, retired Turkish general Adnan Tanriverdi, in fact has plans to make Turkey the centre of the next caliphate, which includes plans for a confederation of 61 Islamic countries. At a conference two years ago, according to a report in MEMRI (the Middle East Media Research Institute), Tanriverdi “called for the coordination of the joint manufacturing of weapons and military equipment among Islamic countries, saying: ‘States cannot stand tall against the countries whose weapons they use.” Tanriverdi’s organisation also published a 69-page draft constitution “for a planned shari’a-based confederation of 61 Islamic countries. This constitution declares that ‘sovereignty belongs to shariah,’ that Istanbul is to be the capital of the confederation, that the Arabic language would be taught in all of its schools, and that its name will be “Asrica,” which is formed from a combination of Asia and Africa.”
A newspaper close to Erdogan wanted to create an Islamic army to fight Israel.
Do the Tatas want a man to run Air India who was close to this megalomaniac? Is his expertise in airline management worth the controversies that will inevitably dog this man? At the time of writing, Ayci’s appointment had still to be ratified by the government of India, but even if it goes through it will be a problem. The Tatas need a Plan B, as an Economic Times report suggests.
Note: Many of the quotes ascribed to Erdogan and his close associates are sourced from MEMRI, which has made Erdogan-watching a key focus area. We owe a debt of gratitude to MEMRI for this service.