Saturday, March 3, 2012

It's a bird, it's a beer, it's an Airline. And it's part of India's newfound self-esteem

There is a notable lack of public sympathy for Kingfisher Airlines in the hour of its crisis. This is mostly because of owner Vijay Mallya's jewel-studded lifestyle. Some link his personal extravagance to his airline's woes. Some argue: If he has all that money to burn, why doesn't he burn some of it to save his airline? Other businessmen as well as the general public are against the Government spending taxpayer's money to bail out the carrier.

To a large extent these sentiments are valid and Vijay Mallya has only himself to blame. One problem may be that his flamboyance is not relieved by counterveiling attributes which help others like him to rise above their money. The theatrical tycoon he is most frequently compared with, Virgin airline's Richard Branson, has involvements that transcend his yachts and his publicity stunts like hot-air ballooning. His African programmes aimed at education and poverty alleviation and his activism with issues like global warming put him in a league of his own.

Giani Agnelli, heir to the Fiat fortune, was a star of the Reviera pleasure spots in his younger days. But the playboy matured into one of the world's most admired businessmen. Even when depression and terrorist threats rattled businesses during the 1970s, his management skills helped him survive and grow. A style icon all his life, he was once described by Life magazine as “an exquisitely tailored Julius Caesar”. The point is that neither flamboyance nor business setbacks deprived Agnelli of his status as “an unelected statesman”.

No different was Ted Turner who embellished his billionaire dazzle by having Jane Fonda as wife for ten years. He never missed a fun moment or a luxury fling, but his personal achievements never flagged either. He skippered his yacht to a win in the world's toughest ocean race, the America's Cup in 1977. When the US boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics, he organised a parallel Goodwill Games in Moscow six years later; 3000 athletes from 79 countries attended. Above all, he changed the media game by founding CNN, a wholly original idea at the time.

While Branson, Agnelli and Turner are all known for substantial philanthropic activities, Vijay Mallya's corporate or personal social responsibility is yet to develop. But he has come to symbolise something that has been good for India. It is interesting to note that until Kingfisher Airlines ran into its current phase of humiliation, Vijay Mallya's bigger-than-life flashiness was something his countrymen enjoyed. He personified India's newfound prosperity, and the ideals the new middle class admired. News of his yacht Indian Empress titillated many Indians because it was the boat Richard Burton had presented to Elizabeth Taylor.

Mallya's business capabilities also commanded attention. The spirits business he inherited rapidly developed into a world player. As a deal maker he became a bit of a legend. Perhaps it was his weakness for glamour that made him go into the airline business. But no one will forget the touch of class he brought to air travel in India. For the first time, seats sported leather upholstry, there were individual video screens for every passenger, a personal welcome by the chairman , and excellent food; people would take the Mumbai-Delhi flights in business class only for the fresh Norwegian salmon served inflight. Above all, passengers alighting at airports to catch their flights were greeted by usher boys who took charge of the baggage and led the surprised “guests” through check-in.

Such an airline deserves not just to succeed, but to be appreciated. No doubt, the high costs generated by government policies adversely affected all airlines; Naresh Goel of Jet Airways is said to have lost his billionaire status and become a mere millionaire. Perhaps all the billionaires have learned their lessons and perhaps the Government has learned that killing a golden goose is no way to get eggs. If Kingfisher goes under, it will hit not only several hundred employees but also a corner of India's newfound self-esteem.