June was not a great month for Vijay Mallya. The once-flamboyant Indian billionaire – former chairman of the United Breweries conglomerate and founder of the now-defunct Kingfisher Airlines – surfaced in a London court on June 13 as the Indian government continued its attempts to extradite him.
Behind these attempts – against the man they used to call the “king of good times” – is a black hole of debt.
It first emerged after the 2012 collapse of Kingfisher Airlines, since which a consortium of 17 Indian banks, led by the government-owned State Bank of India, have claimed he owes more than US$1 billion.
Mallya says half of that amount is added interest and insists he already offered a reasonable settlement that was rejected. But now there’s more to this than debt.
Former officials at India’s IDBI Bank, which made loan after loan to the failing Kingfisher before the airline collapsed, were arrested in January, and the charge sheet is now lengthening.
The Indian government says it wants to talk to Mallya about money laundering, fraud and “loan diversions” from corporate to private bank accounts.
A few days before his London court hearing, Mallya made an appearance at the Oval cricket ground – also in the British capital – to watch the Indian national team play an ICC Champions Trophy game against South Africa.
In better times, Mallya had an access-all-areas pass to Indian cricket. He once owned an Indian Premier League team, the Royal Challengers Bangalore, and his fat wallet turned them into the most expensive side in India.
But times have changed. The extradition proceedings mean he no longer owns the team. And he now has to use a public entrance to get into a game. At the gate at the Oval, Indian fans crowded around him, shouting chor chor, which means “thief” in Hindi.
Just before that incident, the onetime “Branson of Bangalore” attended a London cricket charity dinner – but was deemed such an embarrassment that the Indian team, who were guests of honor, left early.
The Vijay Mallya of old was openly brazen, dazzlingly unfazed and publicly cocksure. But his invincibility cloak now seems threadbare.
Outside Westminster Magistrates’ Court, Mallya was mobbed once again, this time by a large gaggle of Indian TV crews and journalists. The man they confronted – once famous for his long hair, gold earrings, and ostentatious pomp – looked much-changed.
As he inched his way along a Marylebone Road bright with English summer sunshine, through a throng of lenses and microphones, he looked very much like a man who no longer sleeps well. Which is understandable.
Mallya inherited United Breweries from his father, Vittal. Born in British India in 1924 and educated at an elite English-system school, Vittal Mallya at first followed his own father into the officer corps of the Indian army, but moved into the beverage business in his early 20s.
In a newly independent India, Vittal made rapid progress buying up what had been British-owned breweries and distilleries and, by the early 1980s, his United Breweries was a 30-company conglomerate. When Vittal died unexpectedly from a heart attack in 1983, his only son stepped up to the plate.
Vijay was 28 when he became group chairman, and he soon stripped the business down to its alcoholic-beverage focus and, in doing so, turned United Breweries into a major global player and himself into a nationwide celebrity.
But where dad was driven by frugal ledger-led prudence, son became more known for lavishness and lust. Like his father, he diversified. Dad had expanded into paints and dried foods. Son went for racing cars and airlines.
Vijay Mallya’s biggest indulgence, Kingfisher Airlines, never made money and became increasingly a vanity-project millstone for United, but he refused to let go.
Besides his playboy penthouses, private planes and parties on his $100 million super-yacht at Cannes, Mallya also courted power and respectability and was a member of the Indian Parliament from 2002 until 2016.
When he left India in March 2016, there was an uproar. Mallya managed to resign from Parliament just before he was expelled.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised the matter of Mallya’s extradition with his British counterpart, Theresa May, during her official visit to India in 2016, and the tycoon was arrested in London in April this year.
After surrendering his passport, he was released on the equivalent of $830,000 bail and has since been living in a gated mansion on London’s leafy fringes. Mallya is the co-owner of the Force India Formula One racing team – one of the last prominent positions he still holds – and he bought his country hideaway from racing driver Lewis Hamilton’s father, reportedly for $15 million.
After his arrest, the Indian media took up camp outside the mansion’s gates. From his gilded cage, Mallya has been powerless, as the Indian government has seized and auctioned his Airbus plane, his multiple swanky properties and his collection of supercars.
He has so far managed to keep the super-yacht and the Trump Tower condo, and seems to be digging in at his English estate.
A recent British press report said he had been renovating his mansion – bigger garages and more fountains, apparently – and it’s not hard to work out why Mallya thinks he has a good chance of staying put.
India’s extradition treaty with the United Kingdom dates to 1992 and since then New Delhi has made numerous extradition requests, but only one has succeeded.
Samirbhai Vinubhai Patel, who was wanted in a case related to the 2002 Gujarat anti-Muslim riots, was extradited from the UK to India in October 2016. But he actually consented to the extradition.
Some in India are saying that it is not in the establishment’s interests to bring Mallya back because he is simply the tip of a very incriminating illicit money-mountain
Mallya’s legal team – led by superstar barrister Clare Montgomery, whose stellar client list includes the late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and former Hong Kong chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen – will try to get the case quashed by arguing that he will never get a fair trial in India.
There will be another hearing at Westminster this week (July 6), but it is said Mallya will not attend, and the actual extradition trial could be in December, or possibly as late as April 2018.
Some in India are saying that it is not in the establishment’s interests to bring Mallya back because he is simply the tip of a very incriminating illicit money-mountain, but as any who saw him in court last month will attest, he is worried.
Mallya’s “good times” nickname comes from the marketing tagline that used to adorn his flagship Kingfisher Premium beer. But Mallya, 62, is no longer selling beer. Or indeed much of anything at all.
Bit by bit, the Indian government is determinedly taking his assets. His legal team is also ballistically expensive. As he stood in court, his face drawn with strain and fatigue, he may well have been wondering if the good times are gone forever.