Monday, March 21, 2016
To what heights of glamour he soared in a short span of time; to what depths of disgrace he plunged in an instant. The Vijay Mallya story holds two lessons for all -- for both the movers and shakers who regulate the course of the country and for us citizens who pay dearly for all the shenanigans that go on. The first lesson is that character is the ultimate determinant. Where the basic qualities of character are askew, some price will have to be paid sooner or later, one way or another. The second is that our politicians shamelessly hold with the hare and run with the hound, owning up things when the going is good and pretending innocence when things go wrong. Mallyas and citizens may come and go but vile politicians go on for ever.
What looked like Vijay Mallya's advantage was in fact his problem. He inherited his father's empire when he was 28. Azim Premji took over his inheritance at 21. The way the two business houses moved forward provided an object lesson in the role that character plays. Premji built his business without show or fanfare, remaining a private person all the time. So indeed did Vittal Mallya, Vijay's father. But the 28-year-old owner of the flourishing cash cow, United Breweries, responded in his own way when the vastness of his suddenly gained power dawned on him. He set a style that celebrated extravagance which he explained as necessary brand building but which struck others as exercises in self-gratification and assertion of authority.
Pride prevented him from listening to anyone including the top financial and corporate officers in his group. He would spend millions on fancy fads, often just to prove that he had the power to do so. He launched Kingfisher Airlines -- his eventual nemesis -- against the advice of his closest associates. It was a great airline to begin with, offering services no other carrier did. But it lived beyond its means and the intricacies of the aviation business were beyond the grasp of its owner whose experience was confined to the rather different liquor industry.
The fault lines in Vijay Mallya's character came to the fore when he escaped from his country to avoid the responsibility of repaying loans and clearing unpaid staff salaries. He risked criminal charges when he failed to respond to court orders. He said, "I hope that I return one day" to India. The grand showman of Asia, the flamboyant jetsetter, party giver and yacht owner with anchorages in havens like Monaco, had become a fugitive from law.
But this was a privileged fugitive. That is where politicians come in with their deceipts. People like Mallya and Lalit Modi are above the laws that apply to ordinary citizens. (When an Interpol notice against Lalit Modi was in force, Modi mocked his critics by posting an instagram picture of himself with retired Interpol chief Ronald Noble watching a match in Barcelona). Mallya quite obviously escaped in time -- and subsequently defied court warrants -- because he is politically protected. Like Modi is. Like Octavio Quattrochi was. Like dozens of criminal politicians are in UP and Bihar. Like corrupt ministers are in every state in India, from Kerala to Haryana.
The political clout that Lalit Modi fielded in Rajasthan is a legend known to all. Vijay Mallya's clout enabled him to toy with the Presidentship of the Janata Party until he got tired of it. He then used his winning ways to get into the Rajya Sabha where he became a member of the Consultative Committee on Civil Aviation, a classic case of clash of interests. Banks indulged him. So did government agencies. It should surprise no one if Mallya joins Modi in the exclusive category of new NRIs -- Non Returning Indians.
The worst of it all is the cynical way our political parties handle such issues. Because Mallya escaped during the watch of the present Government, people attacked the BJP. The BJP's response was to attack the Congress for letting Quattrochi escape. As if one shame justified another. In this game both parties avoid addressing the issue on hand -- how big shots cheat the country and get away with it. It shows yet again the irrelevance of which party is in power. Whoever it is, the country is abused for the benefit of the few. This must be what Nani Palkhivala meant when he said: "India's greatest enemy is not Pakistan or China, but Indians themselves".