Mallya, the man

Print edition : August 08, 2014

Vijay Mallya on board with guests during Kingfisher Airlines A-320 pre-launch function, in Bangalore on May 8, 2005. Photo: G.P. Sampath Kumar

This account of Vijay Mallya’s life presents a layered portrait of the man, his oddities and eccentricities, and highlights the serious problems of India’s regulatory system.

ON October 2012, when the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) finally suspended the licence of Kingfisher Airlines, it seemed like the final point of hubris for the poster boy of corporate India, liquor baron Vijay Mallya. The irony of the situation was hard to miss. The very financial media that had once heralded this larger-than-life personality, his flamboyant ways as well as his indomitable ambition to create and nurture a new brand during the heyday of Kingfisher Airlines were now crying foul over alleged irregularities in the running of the airline. Mallya and Kingfisher were consistently making it to the headlines for the wrong reasons. The non-payment of staff salaries, huge debts to public sector banks and inability to pay airport operators—this broadly summed up the content of most news reports on Kingfisher at the time when it was a sinking ship.

K. Giriprakash’s intriguing portrait of Vijay Mallya charts the many twists and turns in his fortunes because of his attempts at manipulating those in the corridors of power and unscrupulous pursuit of his ambitions, at times with disastrous consequences. The book captures the oddities and eccentricities of a man who has been both the most celebrated and the most controversial figure of corporate India. Giriprakash’s portrayal is honest and detailed to the minutiae. The author relies on a number of anecdotes, incidents, interviews and interactions with former and present employees of United Spirits that he had access to in his long career as a journalist. Giriprakash’s portrayal goes beyond a mere anecdotal narration of events to conjure up an atmosphere of intrigue and suspense, almost in the manner of a thriller, as the tumultuous turn of events that shape Mallya’s career come to light.

Mallya is shown to be a larger-than-life personality, almost lapsing into megalomania occasionally. For instance, he is shown to be perpetually late at meetings with employees, even when there were important issues at stake. Mallya comes through as the embodiment of the glitz and confidence of neoliberal India and the exalted sense of the self that typifies a feudal social structure. This characterisation of Mallya comes out best in a number of events described in the book. For instance, at a meeting with aggrieved employees of the beleaguered Kingfisher Airlines Mallya loses his cool. After his assurance to employees that they would get their salaries on time from the next month, one of them asks if they would be getting the arrears too. Mallya flares up at this, as he perceives it as an insult to the company.

The anecdotes in the book bring to the fore Mallya’s unique personality. The author narrates them occasionally with a tone of acerbic humour. For instance, in describing Mallya’s effort to win a bid for Mahatma Gandhi’s belongings in New York, the author observes that Mallya “took possession of the belongings of a person who had advocated abstinence all his life”.

The author also brings out the contrast between the aspirations and lifestyles of the business class before and after the liberalisation of the economy. The book takes a peek into the relatively unassuming, humble entrepreneurial class before the 1990s while presenting anecdotes from the life of Vittal Mallya, the father of Vijay Mallya.

The author notes that Vittal Mallya ran his business with an almost non-existent hierarchy. After Vijay Mallya took over, he introduced a corporate management structure in keeping with the new economic order. Mallya ordered an expensive makeover for the Herbertsons’ office in Mumbai. When he invited his father to inaugurate the newly designed office floor, Vittal Mallya said, “How easy it is to spend money!”

The author provides a vivid account of the workings of corporate India and its deft manipulation of the corridors of power, often to the disadvantage of public institutions. He brings to light the unholy nexus between corporate conglomerates and politicians without resorting to the use of stilted rhetoric. In fact, the author’s narration of events that led to the Kingfisher crisis and the consequences thereof deftly portrays the weakening of public institutions and regulatory mechanisms in India. This is borne out by the attitude of major public sector lenders to Kingfisher Airlines, even when the company was defaulting on loans worth several crores. The author observes, “A year before this, when lenders actually started asking for their money back, it was put across to Mallya’s officials as gently as possible, a treatment they normally do not accord to small investors whose debt does not exceed a couple of crores.”

A number of issues emerge from this. Among these are the subservient attitude of public institutions to corporate conglomerates, the lack of adequate risk assessment when giving out public money, and the differential treatment meted out to a baron vis-a-vis a small-time investor. The Kingfisher episode succinctly brings out the different forces at work and the dynamics of power between public institutions and big capital in India.

Acquiring Air Deccan

The author also presents the various shades of character and the competing aspirations of individuals in corporate India. The contrast between Mallya and Captain Gopinath is a telling commentary on the variety of opinion in corporate India. Captain Gopinath’s attempts to popularise the low-cost airline model were aimed at making flying affordable for every Indian, whereas Mallya’s model presented flying as a luxurious experience to be savoured. Mallya’s astute business sense helped him acquire Gopinath’s Air Deccan. However, once Mallya took control of Air Deccan, he went about dismantling everything that the airline stood for, including the low-cost model. The author states, “In his memoirs, Simply Fly, Captain Gopinath writes that he could do nothing except stand there and see his dream being torn apart by a man who had promised to him before taking over his airline that he would look after it like a baby.”

The author charts the landscape of a number of corporate battles fought taking advantage of the poor regulatory environment in India where the ability of the competing parties to exploit the system yields profits. Mallya’s acquisition of the liquor company Shaw Wallace following a pitched battle with the Sindhi businessman Manohar Rajaram Chhabria illustrates the causticity and cut-throat competition that characterise the corporate world. As the author states, Mallya spent over two decades trying to gain control of a company he had coveted since the day he took over the reins of United Breweries from his father.

In the acknowledgments, the author highlights some of the challenges he faced in writing an objective account of Mallya’s life without being laudatory. He states that Mallya flatly refused him an interview when he first approached him with the project and also warned him that his executives would not speak to him if he did not grant them permission. The author spoke to some of Mallya’s friends, former employees, business competitors and people in the government who were forthcoming with information and helped him gain an impartial perspective on Mallya.

The media portrayal of Mallya has ranged between the extremes of adulation for his larger–than-life persona and repugnance for his unscrupulous ways of realising his ambitions.

This account of Mallya’s life presents a layered portrait of the man, his oddities and eccentricities. Though largely based on interviews and personal anecdotes, the book highlights some of the serious anomalies of a lax regulatory system, corporate profligacy and the weakening of public institutions in India.