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Book Review | The Vijay Mallya Story

LiveMint logoLiveMint 09-05-2014 Tarun Shukla

The Vijay Mallya Story | K. Giriprakash

Lucked out

L iquor baron Vijay Mallya has faced arrest twice. The first time was in 1985, when he was 30, and spent a night in Bangalore’s Infantry Road jail for violating the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act; the second, when his cheques to an airport operator bounced in 2012 and a non-bailable warrant was issued against the 59-year old.

The Vijay Mallya Story, by journalist K. Giriprakash, chronicles the big events in the flamboyant billionaire’s life in these 29 years and his rise and fall in the public imagination as chairman of the United Breweries (UB) Group.

Bangalore-based Giriprakash has followed Mallya’s career closely over the last two decades in the city where UB Group is headquartered. But Mallya, who has kept a low profile since the grounding of Kingfisher Airlines Ltd in 2012, has not given any interviews to him. Anyone who tracks Mallya will be able to see that a lot of the research, therefore, comes from Mallya’s speeches posted on YouTube, besides interviews with former and current employees.

The Vijay Mallya Story succeeds in capturing a slice of Mallya’s life. His interest in aviation goes back to his early years. We learn that though Kingfisher went on to become India’s luxury airline and was admired internationally, long-time private-sector bankers of the UB Group were not very supportive of the project, and the airline was born out of sheer ego. “The first call was to a top executive in a private-sector bank who had stood by United Breweries for several years. The person at the other end kept arguing against Mallya’s proposed project. Finally losing patience, Mallya cut the banker short by telling him he didn’t need his money anyway,” Giriprakash writes of the airline’s launch. The majority of the grounded airline’s debt is taxpayer money lent from government-owned State Bank of India without adequate guarantees.

The book also gives us some sense of why Kingfisher Airlines failed and why Mallya bought an Indian Premier League cricket team loved by the growing middle class, even though he was the first business tycoon to bat for the establishment of an upmarket international car racing track in India more than a decade back.

Giriprakash also tells us that the beer-loving Mallya is deeply religious and trims his goatee in a way to make it look like the trunk of the Hindu god Ganesha. Mallya apparently also made sure that every Kingfisher aircraft did a circumambulation of the Lord Venkateswara temple in Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh, after flying down from the French town of Toulouse, before it joined the fleet.

Since public advertising in the liquor business is not allowed in India, Mallya knew the worth of grabbing national headlines with his purchase of a “200-year old sword” belonging to the 18th century ruler of Mysore, Tipu Sultan, at an auction in London, UK, for `1.5 crore. The liquor baron’s finances did not stop him from also buying alcohol-averse Mahatma Gandhi’s spectacles and other belongings for around `10 crore.

Compared to low-cost airline founder G.R. Gopinath’s Simply Fly: A Deccan Odyssey, Giriprakash’s book doesn’t surprise enough. It steers clear of Mallya’s personal relationships. It does not say how much the grounding of Kingfisher hit him, or if he felt cheated by the many friends who did not stand by him during the crisis.

Mallya tried his hand at politics as a member of the Janata Party but was later removed by its founder, Subramanian Swamy. That did not stop him from becoming a Rajya Sabha member with the support of what the book calls “friendly” parties—it does not elaborate on who these parties are or why they were friendly to Mallya. Nor does it raise questions about Mallya’s actions: Was it ethical of him to become a member of Parliament and then sit on a parliamentary committee on aviation to scrutinize Air India, a rival of Kingfisher Airlines? We also do not get any insight into the reasons why Mallya sold his favourite Formula One team, Force India, to Sahara India Pariwar billionaire Subrata Roy.

Roy, who rose to prominence like Mallya in the last two decades, has been in jail since 4 March for failing to refund investors. Mallya, too, faces a long road ahead. There’s certainly scope for another book that will give us a sense of the way he will handle the future.

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