NEW DELHI (Reuters) – A Hindu nationalist group close to India’s ruling party is calling on the government to block the appointment of Ilker Ayci as chief executive of Air India, citing his previous political links in Turkey, with which New Delhi has strained relations.
The call from the economic wing of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, comes as government agencies carry out what one government official said were more intensive than usual background checks on Ayci, who was an adviser in 1994 to Tayyip Erdogan, when the Turkish president was mayor of Istanbul.
Ayci, a former chairman of Turkish Airlines, did not answer repeated calls by Reuters for comment.
Tata Group, the Indian conglomerate which announced Ayci’s appointment as CEO of previously state-run Air India after recently taking over the debt-laden airline in a $2.4 billion equity and debt deal, also did not respond.
In its Feb. 14 statement announcing Ayci’s appointment, Tata said Ayci was “an aviation industry leader” who would “lead Air India into the new era”. Ayci said in the same statement that he was delighted to lead “an iconic airline”.
India’s main government spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday.
Ashwani Mahajan, co-convenor of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, which is seen as having significant influence on Indian policy making, said the government must not approve Ayci’s appointment as Turkey had been sympathetic to India’s rival Pakistan.
“It (Air India) has been a national carrier and it still carries the same importance … Tata should not get clearance for this,” Mahajan told Reuters.
The appointment of a foreign national as CEO of an airline in India requires government clearance before it can proceed.
While checks on a CEO are in most cases a formality, they are more stringent in Air India’s case, the government source told Reuters, flagging concerns security agencies have about Ayci’s links in Turkey. The source declined to be identified due to lack of authority to discuss intelligence matters publicly.
India lodged a diplomatic protest in 2020 after Erdogan said New Delhi’s decision to impose federal rule in the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir, which is claimed by both India and Pakistan, was worsening the situation there and that Turkey stood in solidarity with its people.
(Additional reporting by Aditi Shah in New Delhi and by Ebru Tuncay and Dominic Evans in Turkey; Editing by Alexander Smith)