Review: Kingfizzer; The Rise and Fall of Vijay Mallya by Kingshuk Nag

Entertaining and informative, a new book on Vijay Mallya is strong on facts and figures

books Updated: Nov 18, 2017 11:49 IST
Sujoy Gupta
Sujoy Gupta
Hindustan Times
Kingfisher airlines,Rahul Gandhi,Vittal Mallya
Launch of the Kingfisher 2007 calendar aboard the Indian Empress owned by Vijay Mallya.(Manoj Patil/HT Photo)

India’s chattering classes, barring a microscopic few (neutral book reviewers and impartial members of the judiciary) are divided into two camps. One is enthralled by Vijay Mallya’s flamboyance, extravagance and braggadocio replete with the personal jet VT-VJM, the private super yacht, the Indian Empress, an incredible fleet of 260 vintage cars, luxury villas strewn on islands across the world, lavish urban residences, and the inevitable entourage of pretty women. The other despises Mallya’s image as the King of Good times and believes he is a recklessly selfish criminal, who misused money that does not belong to him.

Kingfizzer; The Rise and Fall of Vijay Mallya; Kingshuk Nag; Rs 399, 222pp; Harper Collins

Wisely, Kingshuk Nag researches facts and figures almost entirely from the public domain with sources listed chapter wise in the bibliography. There aren’t many unsubstantiated inputs from “reliable sources who prefer anonymity”. Views and opinions being the author’s own, the narrative is tongue-in-cheek, even naughty.

Take this: Rahul Gandhi – under whose government Mallya got all the bank loans – has been frequently attacking the Centre over the Mallya fiasco. ‘When farmers leave with cots, they are called thieves, but when industrialists run away with Rs 9,000 crores, they are called defaulters.’

Precisely how did a second-term member who often drove to Parliament House in a Maserati “run away”? Here we are: Vijay Mallya MP dutifully attended Rajya Sabha on 2 March 2016. The very same evening, flourishing an MP’s diplomatic passport, he flew off to London aboard Jet Airways flight 9W-122 occupying seat 1D in first class accompanied by seven pieces of luggage and “his current girlfriend”. By then, the look-out notice issued earlier by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) requiring Mallya’s detention at any immigration counter in the country had been “revised” to remove the detention requirement. The high and mighty in the land don’t break rules, merely bend them. It is as simple as that.

The book begins with Vijay’s father Vittal Mallya who emulated fictional miser Uncle Scrooge. Mallya Sr monitored daily expense accounts down to the last paisa, to one-hundredth of one rupee. When he died, age 56, in 1983, only son Vijay, 28, inherited a business empire (liquor, beer, food products, pharmaceuticals, agro chemicals, paints) with an annual turnover of Rs 350 crores, a considerable sum 34 years ago.

The young man promptly disowned his father’s mindset, though not his wealth. He bought and sold and tried his hand at a slew of disparate businesses – EPABX systems, pizza and cola-like beverages, a private air taxi service, engineering, chemicals and fertilisers, horse racing, paints, a stud farm, owning a cricket team in the West Indies and two top football clubs in Kolkata, publishing a newspaper (The Asian Age), a 25,000 acre game reserve in South Africa, and more. Spending money was fun!

Independent business tycoon Vijay quickly recognised that his breweries and distilleries were the geese that laid golden eggs. Changing the Kingfisher logo from a black and white seated bird to a glamourous colourful kingfisher in full flight, he added zing to the brand by starting Kingfisher Derby and brand-labeling his cricket and football teams. Mallya formed United Spirits by consolidating his liquor businesses (Shaw Wallace, McDowell, Herbertsons, Triumph Distillers). Further, he became equal partner with world leader Heineken.

Mallya’s bitter, grotesque tussle to acquire Shaw Wallace is told in detail in a chapter entitled The Conquest of Shaw Wallace. The Chhabria brothers Manu and Kishore encountered a fierce, ruthless, shrewd and moneyed foe. By the time an out-of-court settlement clinched Mallya’s “conquest,” the Chhabria brothers, left high and dry (pun intended) had filed 140 court cases against each other!

Kingshuk Nag (Courtesy the author)

But Mallya’s fondest dream, Kingfisher Airlines(KFA), proved a nightmare. Apparently, management prudence was minimal: flight timings overlapped competitors’ schedules; flyers preferred no-frills thrift to KFA’s full service; cost control wasn’t enforced; Maintenance Repair Overhaul (MRO) expenses ran high. KFA dissolved in quicksands of debt.

Unfazed, Mallya’s swashbuckling charm and political clout found bankers – some since arrested – jostling to lend him Rs 9091.4 crores, inter alia, on tenuous intangible security like KFA’s brand value assessed at Rs 4,100 crores! The book painstakingly reveals more rapacious, audacious details.

Read more: No threat to Vijay Mallya’s life in jail, India to tell UK court

Mallya’s house of cards has collapsed. Allegedly a wilful defaulter, proclaimed offender and a fugitive from justice, his passport stands revoked and he cannot leave the UK. Says the author: “Right now Mallya is walking his talk.” The King of Good Times won’t abdicate. His tweet tagline says it all: “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning to dance in the rain.”

Sujoy Gupta is a business historian and corporate biographer.

First Published: Nov 17, 2017 20:11 IST