You rarely heard about Vijay Mallya doing business. It was always his hobbies and indulgences that got coverage. So much so that even Kingfisher Airlines that took wings in 2005 was seen as his pastime as though he was up in the air in a balloon.
It was a jolly good ride with the “king of good times”, as he was often addressed. Towards the end of 2012, the airline was grounded; four months after that he lost his license. And now, three years later, 13 banks are demanding their money back. Serious money. Rs. 9000 crore or $1.5 billion. 3000 employees have to be paid salaries amounting to Rs. 300 crore.
He is absolutely answerable to the government, the ministry of aviation, shareholders, the staff. However, beyond the legal and contractual issues, I find the recent moralistic coverage of the defaulter farcical because there was media silence until the banks decided to freeze his assets and he escaped to his country home in the UK, which he has been doing all along. Part whim, part strategy and part business.
He himself has tweeted:
“I am an international businessman. I travel to and from India frequently. I did not flee from India and neither am I an absconder. Rubbish.”
He has always revelled in his NRI status, wanting to belong here yet be part of the global landscape. He is a big man in India whereas he does not have the visibility of the Hindujas and Mittals overseas. Here, his every move has been manna for the media, and he does not disappoint. He is like a collage of cartoon-strip characters -- Richie Rich, Archie, and Mandrake the magician. He provides entertainment value even when he is sitting cross-legged contemplating god.
Popularity does not come cheap, so he willingly goes overboard. He splurges on a limited edition Kingfisher calendar that showcases the best bikini bodies in sun-kissed resorts, despite being aware that the flight staff he personally selected have not even been paid their dues. He may have been surrounded by women, but they were only mannequins hovering around to sell his product – himself.
"If you flaunt your birthday bashes even while owing the system a lot of money, it does seem to suggest to the public that you don't care. I think that is the wrong message to send. If you are in trouble, you should be cutting down your expenses."
This is ethical, but how many among the "public" are aware or even care? Indians are used to rajahs in the garb of politicians and the filthy rich. A month or so ago there was an item in the papers that pointed out how the media that chased him took its time even noticing him at the racecourse. By doing so, it reiterated its own penchant for the superficial.
When some in the media paint him out to be a failure it appears churlish and ignorant. Interestingly, it adds heft to his bankruptcy claims. His other businesses span engineering, fertilisers, pharmaceuticals,paints, the media, horse-racing and liquor, which is the sixth largest brand reaching 40 countries. Had the reportage been about his defaulting instead of what he wore to the race course, things might not have come to such a pass. Not only does this attitude not give any credit to his business empire and acumen, it helps deflect attention from them.
At 27, he inherited the McDowell Group from his father Vitthal Mallya and appointed himself chairman for life of the UB Group. In the 80’s he started a pizza chain that bombed; it now seems it was ahead of its time. Chutzpah has been his hallmark.
The first time Mallya was ready to enter the Rajya Sabha, he was already prepared to play the game. He said he wanted to give back to Karnataka what he got from the State. You do not need to sit in the Upper House to contribute to society, but for one who had charmingly stated that “words” are his budget, he knew exactly when and how money could talk.
In 2013 he brought back Tipu Sultan’s sword for Rs. 1.5 crore from his “personal funds”. In 2009, he bid for the Mahatma’s personal items and got them back for Rs. 9 crore. Promptly the moralists started talking about how Mallya was so different from the Mahatma and what would Gandhi think about it! Others spoke about how there were worthies better suited to bail out the Mahatma’s stuff, like the Birlas, the Narayan Murthys or the Azim Premjis.
While it is true that Mallya is no conservative industrialist and he wouldn’t be caught dead even acting simple, he played to the gallery and the media slaked its thirst with his lager and larger-than-life image.
One fine day, we found him in silk kurtas lighting incense sticks and organising religious soirees and promoting the Art of Living, when one thought he had mastered it. Was this a new spiritual awakening, or can we dare to insinuate that it was mere flamboyance, which he once admitted was “part of the brand building”?
What the media wants him to do is penance, and that he won’t do. Call it arrogance, call it attitude, but he is not giving in, yet:
“As an Indian MP I fully respect and will comply with the law of the land. Our judicial system is sound and respected. But no trial by media.”“Let media bosses not forget help, favours, accommodation that I have provided over several years which are documented. Now lies to gain TRP?”
If he indeed acts by his threat, a lot will be exposed. Mallya will not go down alone, and it will be interesting to see how the news will be covered from now on. Passive-aggressivness has its own dynamics.
Years ago he appeared in a TV promo where he asked us not to drink and drive. What a neat little trick. The man of fast cars and fine booze telling the world to refrain from indulgences that he was selling them.
Perhaps he has all along been just a man with a fishing rod playing the role of angler while his eyes are set on the skies watching the kingfisher swoop down and do his work for him.