It was June 2005. The world had just come to know about the largest passenger aircraft ever — the talismanic Airbus A380. And an Indian businessman called Vijay Mallya sprang quite a surprise when his pet venture, Kingfisher Airlines, placed firm orders with the Toulouse-based aviation giant for five of those ‘big birds’. Kingfisher happened to be the only Indian airline to order the much-vaunted ‘Superjumbo’ — at a point of time when legacy carriers in the country were busy negotiating air-pockets with falling revenue and rising competition.
But coming from the “King of Good Times”, a Mallya foray into just about anything was front-page material on all financial dailies across India. His was believed to be a ‘Midas touch’ when it came to new ventures and acquisitions.
However, by January 2014, Airbus was forced to cancel the entire set of orders from Kingfisher, as the fortunes of Mallya’s airline, along with his reputation as an entrepreneur, began to nose-dive.
And, by March 2016, 60-year-old Mallya’s degeneration from being the “King of Good Times” to a fugitive businessman was complete.
With loan defaults in 17 Indian banks amounting to a whopping Rs90 billion (Dh5 billion) hanging on his head, India’s Enforcement Directorate has had to seek the help of the Interpol in issuing an international arrest warrant against the chairman of the UB Group after he fled to Britain this March — just as the banks were beginning to warm up to the whiff of a multi-billion dollar debt default by one of India’s most well-known business magnates. Mallya has also resigned from his Rajya Sabha (Upper House of parliament) membership, anticipating a suspension.
Flamboyance has always been the name of the game with this tycoon — be it ordering A380 Superjumbos, organising lavish photoshoots at exotic locales for the marquee Kingfisher Calendar, acquiring India’s only Formula One team, hobnobbing with the world’s best-known fashionistas and supermodels or hosting exclusive VIP parties on his luxurious mega yacht, the Indian Empress ... Mallya’s reported net worth of $1.2 billion (Dh4.41 billion) allowed him the bandwidth to live life king-size — from indulging in designer sunglasses to refurbishing the interiors of an Airbus A319 for $40 million to serve as his private, in-air hospitality lounge-cum-office, to buying Mahatma Gandhi’s wire-rimmed glasses and other personal belongings at a New York auction for an astronomical $1.8 million ... the list of his objects of desire is long and prohibitively expensive.
After having completed his schooling from La Martiniere for Boys in Kolkata, Mallya graduated in Commerce from St Xavier’s College in the eastern Indian metropolis, before plunging head-on into the world of business. Following the death of his father, Vitthal Mallya, he took over as the chairman of United Breweries in 1983 when he was just 28. Since then, the group has grown into a multi-national conglomerate of more than 60 companies and helped Mallya emerge as the “Richard Branson of India”. It was his business acumen and enterprise that saw the Kingfisher brand of beverage acquire a 50 per cent market share in India and secure a footprint in 52 countries around the globe.
‘My children are dear to me’
A glib talker that he is, Mallya found instant fame in the circle of the rich and famous from an early age. His PR skills are believed to be phenomenal. It was even reported that he would sometimes personally interview candidates aspiring to be cabin crew members with his much-hyped Kingfisher Airlines. Networking, socialising, connecting came naturally to this man. Legend has it that if “Sir” happened to be present on a Kingfisher flight by chance, the crew for sure would go on a tizzy, pampering the connoisseur’s every whim and fancy, until the pilot’s voice crackled on the in-flight public address system: “Cabin crew, landing stations please. Mr Mallya, Sir, back to you seat please!”
While his public persona has always been that of a flashy, opulent, extravagant and highly extroverted businessman, his family life has by and large been a closely-guarded realm. In spite of his globe-trotting schedule, he has always enjoyed playing a doting father to his children from his first wife Sameera Tyabjee, an Air India cabin crew, and Rekha, his second wife. “My children are very dear to me. I am responsible as a father to play an active role in determining their future,” Mallya had once said.
But he lost the plot big-time when it came to running his business empire. Apart from mismanagement of funds and wrong choice of business models, there are charges of serious financial offences, such as money laundering, against him. It has been alleged that a major portion of the bank loan of Rs90 billion that Mallya had acquired in India, was siphoned off to offshore safe-havens and his undisclosed assets far exceed his debts. This is the point on which Indian authorities are trying to nail him — that Mallya is a wilful defaulter.
As India cries hoarse, trying to secure his extradition from Britain, Mallya is probably whistling in the early summer breeze on the sundeck of his Tewin mansion — marvelling at the glitter of the diamond-studded ‘VJM’ bracelet adorning his right wrist. But hereon, the “King of Good Times” may need to remember this: “It’s payback time!”
You can follow Sanjib Kumar Das on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@moumiayush.