As the Courts Close In, India's 'King of Good Times' Goes AWOL

The Indian Kingfisher beer and airline mogul Vijay Mallya, center, used to be on top of the world. Now he is wanted in India for defaulting on his debts and money laundering. Parivartan Sharma/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Riding the Elephant site .

The rural Hertfordshire village of Tewin, 40 miles north of London, has become a target for the Indian media this week because Vijay Mallya, the high-profile Kingfisher beer and airline businessman, is rumored to be there in one of his U.K. homes.

He left India last week, just as the courts were closing in on him for massive loan defaults totalling some Rs9,000 crore ($1.3bn), plus alleged money laundering and other offences, at a time when concern is growing about India's mountain of bad corporate debt.

Mallya, who likes to be regarded as the "king of good times" and has seen himself as India's answer to Richard Branson, was told two days ago by the supreme court in Delhi to return and appear by March 30—with his passport, which the government wants impounded.

On March 11, he was called by the Ministry of Finance's Enforcement Directorate, which looks into foreign exchange dealings and money laundering, for March 18.

Meanwhile his motor racing partner, Subrata Roy of the controversial Sahara real estate and personal savings group, has been living for two years this month in Delhi's Tihar Jail , trying to generate enough funds from asset sales for the courts to let him out on bail.

That is a fate which Mallya presumably fears he could suffer if and when he returns to India and does not show more willingness to correct the mismatch between his public debt and private wealth and answer other charges.

Today he has been on Twitter saying he frequently travels abroad and that "I did not flee from India, neither am I an absconder." He reminded the media, which is hounding him, of the "help, favors, accommodation I have provided over several years which are documented."

Let media bosses not forget help, favours,accommodation that I have provided over several years which are documented. Now lies to gain TRP ?

— Vijay Mallya (@TheVijayMallya) March 10, 2016

Both these men were seen for many years as India's most colorful tycoons. They were clearly crisis-prone, but that did not stop politicians, film stars, media people and other public figures and hangers-on flocking round them and their lavish lifestyles. Roy has shared a Formula 1 motor racing team with Mallya since he bailed him out with of an injection of funds in 2011.

Their stories demonstrate the importance—and uncertainty —of political patronage, which is a vital business asset in India for many companies, and especially for those that operate on the fringes of business ethics and the law.

As the power of social media and round-the-clock television news coverage increases however, those who have thrived for years on crony relationship are more likely to be pursued and pilloried than they were in the past when they come unstuck—Mallya has been hit by a media frenzy that is shaming him for having fled (which he has denied) with his millions, leaving behind not only massive debts but also his airline staff who have not been paid for three years.

Political clout can wane and even collapse, as it did for Roy two years ago and is now beginning to do for Mallya. Roy thrived on powerful political links in his home state of Uttar Pradesh as well in Delhi. Mallya blossomed with backing from almost all political parties across the country—he is an MP and secured sponsorship for his membership of the Rajya Sabha (the upper house) both from the Bharatiya Janata Party and a regional party in his home state of Karnataka.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when and why political backing falls away, but it seems to have begun to happen to both Roy and Mallya when they became exasperatingly intransigent and unhelpful in meeting the demands from authorities to clear up debts and other alleged financial misdeeds.

Impatience with Mallya grew when he appeared to be defying the authorities by throwing an extravagant three-day 60th birthday party in Goa last December, just a month after the State Bank of India had declared him a "wilful defaulter".

Then he announced on February 25 that he was planning to spend more time in the U.K. with his family. There was nothing wrong with that—he has a home there. But he said it at the same time as it was announced that he was receiving Rs 515 crore ($75 million) personal payment as a final settlement with Diageo, the liquor group that has built a controlling stake in his United Distilleries business. He said that the payment "secures my family legacy."

Debt Mountain

It looked therefore as if he was disappearing to London with his millions just as, unfortunately for him, India's central bank, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), and the government are beginning to tackle the country's mountain of bad corporate debt with state-owned banks that has reached near-crisis proportions.

On February 12, Raghuram Rajan, the RBI governor, set Indian banks a one-year deadline to sort out their non-performing loans, and warned them at a meeting in Mumbai that this "may require deep surgery" not "Band Aids." The escalating scale of the problem became clear when the RBI said that bad debts had more than tripled from Rs 15,551 crore for the financial year ending March 2012 to Rs 52,542 crore in March 2015. The Financial Times has reported that India's stressed loan pile is now estimated to have hit about Rs8tn ($117 billion).

Source: First Post, RBI Riding the Elephant

It has also been estimated by The Wire news analysis that India's ten most indebted business groups have about Rs.7.3 lakh crore (approximately $110bn) of loans in their books and are struggling to meet their interest payment obligations. Most of these companies are heavily invested in power, roads and telecom infrastructure projects or have been hit by falling world prices for commodities like steel.

Mallya's Inheritance

Mallya was just 28 when he inherited the United Breweries (UB) group with its Kingfisher beer and spirits business on the death of his father in 1983. When I interviewed him for The Economist in 2005, he told me he had "lived my age"—driving fast cars, breeding and racing horses and partying. By 2005, he had a fleet of private jets, five homes in India and others abroad.

"Early in his career, he seemed set on fulfilling his critics' prediction that he would squander his inheritance, as he expensively moved into chemicals and fertilizers, bought a stake in the Asian Age, a daily paper, ran two glossy magazines and dabbled in filmmaking," I wrote. "In America, he started a software firm, and bought some local papers, breweries and a vineyard."

By 2005 he had done well, making UB the market leader in India and one of the world's three largest liquor companies, but then he launched Kingfisher Airlines—primarily to enhance his beer brand. It was, he told me, "all about lifestyle, fun and aeroplanes—a complete Kingfisher experience."

It was this ego-trip that saddled him with his current load of bad debt as he tried, ineffectively, to continue with a company that never made profits. He has often been accused of having a short attention span, and was known for his unstructured management style.

He bought his Formula 1 motor racing team in 2007, when Forbes magazine put his wealth at a peak of $1.6bn, and a year later bought a cricket team in India's private sector premier league, though by then he was already running into financial troubles.

Kingfisher's problems worsened after it bought a budget airline, Air Deccan, in 2007 which blurred its up-market brand image. It eventually stopped flying in 2012, after it had failed to secure a government bailout.

Since then, Mallya has seemed to be in denial, continuing his flash high-spending international life-style while the banks have been trying, without much success, to recoup their Kingfisher loans. Many of these loans were inexplicably extended and renewed (when the Congress-led government was in power), even though the airline was sinking.

The story of the past week or two illustrates both bureaucratic inefficiency and slothfulness, but it is also tempting to think that officials connived in letting Mallya leave the country.

The announcements of the $75 million payment and the move to London triggered a series of (ineffectual) steps by the State Bank of India and other banks to speed up recovery of their outstanding loans.

However they appear not to have read the fine print of Mallya's Diageo settlement, so do not seem to realise that he had already received $40 million of the $75 million and had probably banked it abroad. Money laundering, fraud and tax investigations and inquiries have been launched.

On March 1, Mallya attended the Rajya Sabha and the next afternoon flew out of India on a regular Jet Airways flight, without any attempt at secrecy. But he seemed to indicate he was still in India by issuing a statement on March 6, when he was already abroad, saying, "I have been most pained at being painted as an absconder—I have neither the intention nor any reason to abscond."

It was not till two days ago that it was officially announced that he had left four days before that statement.

Subrata Roy, once the king of his own good times, has been in Delhi's Tihar Jail for the past two years instead of in his closely guarded luxurious 270-acre compound in the centre of the north Indian city of Lucknow. He also mixed with film stars and powerful politicians of varying shades of respectability, many of whom, it has been widely rumored, invested anonymously in his myriad of financial schemes that primarily drew savings from millions of the poor.

He once owned an airline called Sahara which, like Mallya's Kingfisher, was run not to make profits but to enhance the image of his main business.

Roy was jailed in 2012 after a series of cases and hearings involving the supreme court and SEBI, India's stock market watchdog, which had ordered him to refund Rs24,000 crore (then $4bn, but the figure has now gone up to Rs36,000 crore) to 29.6m investors.

Since 2012 he has been living what he claims in a new book is a "stress free life." He has been trying to secure his release on bail by raising Rs.10,000 crore to deposit with the court, half in cash and half as a bank guarantee, but has failed so far (operating from a rented conference room in the jail) to clinch sales of assets such as the grand but faded Grosvenor House hotel in London's Park Lane.

There are many other much bigger groups hoping to evade bank strictures on their bad debts, and also more businessmen with dubious financial schemes. The courts have already shown what can happen by keeping Roy in jail with trial for two years.

Now the legal system and the government have an opportunity to be tough with Mallya and show that a new regime has indeed begun that bypasses political patronage—if it has!

John Elliott writes from New Delhi. His latest book is Implosion: India's Tryst With Reality.