In Kingfizzer: The Rise and Fall of Vijay Mallya, Kingshuk Nag tries to shed light on Mallya’s personality and the role it played in his decline.
A lifetime ago, Vijay Mallya spent a night in jail. It was 1985 and the 20-something son of Vittal Mallya had launched an incognito bid for Shaw Wallace & Company. Dubai-based corporate raider Manu Chhabria was the public face of the takeover attempt. The top management of Shaw Wallace decided to fight back and information was leaked to the authorities about Mallya’s behind-the-scenes role. So, in June 1985, Mallya was arrested at the Calcutta airport. He spent a night in the custody of the Enforcement Directorate before getting bail the next morning. His passport was impounded. Addressing a press conference soon after his release, Mallya was unrepentant: “Arrest should be the last resort. I never absconded”. He later told journalists that “people are jealous of the successful. I am successful”.
A little over three decades later, Mallya was arrested again – in London – but soon received bail. He’s currently in the UK, fighting the battle of his life. There’s an extradition demand from India, which has put the might of the state against the industrialist. India’s Supreme Court is overseeing the move to get him to pay back Rs 9,000 crore in bad debts after the grounding of Kingfisher Airlines. It is hardly surprising that Mallya’s business empire is in shambles. Even a few years ago, he was the second-largest liquor distributor in the world. Now, at 60, Mallya only has United Breweries – through which he operates the Kingfisher beer empire – to count on. But he remains cocky. “Surrender of passport, arrest, bail, all part of normal extradition proceedings,” he tweeted. He is unrepentant.
In many ways, there’s little change in the Mallya of three decades ago and today. There’s no denying the man – a brilliant and aggressive workaholic – built and nurtured the liquor empire he inherited to be of world-class standard. He may not have run his businesses like a professional CEO, but he managed the environment, took risks and made many forward-looking entrepreneurial calls. For instance, in the early 1990s – when much of India Inc. was fearful of competition from foreigners – Mallya embraced the brave new world. This fetched him rich rewards.
The drama behind the meteoric rise – and fall – of Mallya is well put together in the snappy book – Kingfizzer: The Rise and Fall of Vijay Mallya – by business journalist Kingshuk Nag. It helps that Nag has reported some of these stories, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s. Those were heady days for Indian business journalism, where takeovers required deft handling of a business-unfriendly environment. The book also competently captures the end game at Kingfisher Airlines and explores just why the BJP government is so keen to make an example of Mallya.
Without a doubt, it is Mallya’s personality – larger than life, he is an unashamed and reckless sybarite – that makes this story sizzle. For a young man who took charge of the Mallya empire in his 20s after the unexpected death of his father, the image of a playboy can be forgiven. But Mallya continued to revel in this image as he aged – the yachts got bigger, the parties wilder and so on. Even a Rajya Sabha seat didn’t tame the “king of the good times”. Former journalist M.J. Akbar, now a Union minister in the Narendra Modi government, wrote this about Mallya in 2005: “The fundamental fact of his personality is that he is a romantic. He has the romance of an adventurer…He is the kind of man who could give finance chiefs ulcers. I have seen Vijay fail but not defeated.”
Apart from being reckless, many thought Mallya was cocky and arrogant. In the end, it was this perception that worked against him. As Nag writes: “His lifestyle was his addiction. Although his airline sank, he continued to live the good life.” This built up public opinion against the loan defaulter. In his defence, Mallya argues his bad debts are much smaller than many other notables in India Inc – and he’s right. But instead of lying low as the Kingfisher story exploded, Mallya gave the opposite impression – people thought he was funding his other lifestyle businesses, from Formula One racing to football, from the loans meant for Kingfisher. That put pressure on the banks to go after him.
Nag tries to shed light on Mallya’s personality and the role it played in his decline. This is where the book adds value. The only son of a workaholic father, Mallya was no doubt a pampered child. Unlike his father, he became a spendthrift. But the irony is that he is a deeply religious man, and “also moderately conservative”. Apart from planning his life by astronomy, Mallya is heavily influenced by godman Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. The problem, Nag argues, is that the public looked down on people in the liquor business – his diversifications then were an attempt to “gain respectability” in society. The book argues that Mallya lost all sense of proportion while justifying these actions for the sake of his business.
And what of the future? Legal experts agree that it is going to be tough to get Mallya back into India in a hurry. At the same time, Mallya is a fugitive in the UK and has lost most of his businesses. Pressure is going to build up on his remaining Indian beer business. In that sense, it’s going to be a long walk home.
Sunit Arora is a Delhi-based journalist and former managing editor at Outlook magazine.