Aditya Sinha: Good times, bad debts and 2018

Deve Gowda might call Vijay Mallya a son of the soil, but neither politicians nor banks can look to the escaped capitalist for money

Former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda, who for the past 20 years has confined himself to Karnataka state politics, called former liquor baron Vijay Mallya a son of the soil. Just imagine, the King of Achhe Din — sorry, Good Times — affectionately stuffing his ragi dosa through the pouting lips of all those Kingfisher models. Well, King Son-of-the-Soil just demonstrated his nationalism by flying out of India on March 2, just before the banks to whom his now-defunct Kingfisher Airlines owes Rs 9,091.4 crore (figure as of November 2015) moved court. Neither Mallya will return, nor will the debt get paid off.

Vijay Mallya’s escape involves still unsolved mysteries. (The fact that he flew out First Class with arm-candy has not been contested.) Did he or did he not check in seven pieces of heavy luggage? He breezily dismisses this with “I travel heavy.”Vijay Mallya’s escape involves still unsolved mysteries. (The fact that he flew out First Class with arm-candy has not been contested.) Did he or did he not check in seven pieces of heavy luggage? He breezily dismisses this with “I travel heavy.”

The King’s escape involves still unsolved mysteries. (The fact that he flew out First Class with arm-candy has not been contested.) Did he or did he not check in seven pieces of heavy luggage? He breezily dismisses this with “I travel heavy”, to an interviewer. This is corroborated by an executive assistant who on social media claimed that if Mallya were really fleeing with his belongings, he’d need an entire aircraft.

Reading him in interviews or on Twitter is confusing: “...if people are doubting the integrity of bank employees, then why point the finger at me?” he asks, as if IDBI Bank, which is under the CBI’s scanner for lending him Rs 900 crore, had arbitrarily handed over to him a delicious pile of money even though all the warning signs were flashing red (the ill-advised 2007-08 purchase of Air Deccan and the sky-rocketing oil prices at the time). Or sample this: “News reports that I must declare my assets. Does that mean that Banks did not know my assets or look at my Parliamentary disclosures?” No point trying to decipher that one, I suppose.

In his defence, I must say that Mallya — who during his Twitter spree on March 11 said, “Let media bosses not forget help, favours, accommodation that I have provided over several years which are documented. Now lies to gain TRP?” — has treated me nicely. When I was the editor of a multi-edition Southern newspaper, he would every year send me a free Kingfisher calender — not an ordinary item that just any 40ish man could lay his calloused palms on — along with a personal note that began “Dear Sinha”. The calendar included gorgeous photos of his mammoth yacht (which, incidentally, was a few years back spotted off one of the beaches of a protected islands in the Andamans, depositing loads of evidence of epicurean excess on the pristine white sand); it also had photos of women. And how could you not like his airline? Every time you took off, a video would come on in which Czech model Yana Gupta would coyly show you how to take off your belt.

And as policy analyst Mohan Guruswamy claimed on social media, the original debt owed by Mallya was around R4,000 crore; the rest is interest and interest on interest. (Others claim that the accumulated losses are around R6,000 crore.) Business is a risk. It is unfortunate to hound a businessman solely because he took a gamble; it is further unfair considering that Air India has racked up losses of R43,000 crore, and the bureaucrats who run it aren’t held accountable. There are other industrialists who are in much heavier debt — the Ruia brothers and Anil Ambani come to mind.

Mallya’s Twitter feed also points to a LinkedIn article which suggests, through a chronological series of newspaper articles, that Kingfisher Airlines was poised to get a R3000-crore infusion from Ettihad Airways in 2012 through a 48-per-cent stake. That would have wiped out most of his debt that year. A series of sudden regulatory punishments prevented the deal which eventually went to arch-rival Jet Airways, whose ownership has often been speculated upon (A powerful politician’s name is bandied about). Kingfisher also began to face its salary problems the very same time. (Incidentally, a sad falling out with Mallya’s son also played out around this time.)

If nothing else, the comparison of Mallya’s escaping without paying with the 1,615 farmer suicides in India last year is a false equivalence. It is only of rhetorical value; and even Deve Gowda, champion of Karnataka’s farmers, wouldn’t have called him a son of the soil otherwise. The only ray of sunshine in this messy drama is that RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan and the BJP government have made clear their intent to clean up the banks’ balance sheets. Also, they have put the fear of god in the hearts of other ‘willful’ defaulters. Thus, our son-of-the-soil politicians will have to find another crony capitalist for the big sums of money they need to contest the next election. Incidentally, in Karnataka that will be in 2018, when the BJP hopes to wipe out Deve Gowda and unseat the Congress.

Journalist and writer Aditya Sinha is the co-author of Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years. He tweets @autumnshade. Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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