Grin and beer it

Indrajit Hazra

India, Nov. 3 -- There were times - good times, actually - when I would get to bond with Vijay Mallya quite often. He would look at me affably while telling me every time how "each member of your cabin crew has been handpicked by me and I have instructed them to treat you as a guest in my own house". Even as he was trapped within the confines of the in-flight entertainment screen, he would play the perfect host.

Since the last time I travelled by Kingfisher Airlines though (in January), much has gone wrong for Mallya and his airline that was grounded by the aviation authorities last fortnight. His primary business, operating within the cordoned-off confines of India's liquor industry, is still doing well. So the man diversified into a notoriously precarious business that hasn't done as well as he had hoped for - although 'hope' and 'Mallya' aren't words I usually use in the same sentence. For what Mallya wants, Mallya gets. Even when he doesn't get it.

Everybody, especially every other big shot, loves to see a big shot go down. The fatter, louder and richer the big shot is, the better the spectacle of the cordless bungee-jump. Now, I have no idea whether Mallya will eat Diageo crow and sell some of his stakes in some of his liquor brands to pile up the money he owes almost everyone to get his airline up again. Let's just say it looks as bleak as Yana Gupta becoming Bollywood's next leading lady.

But would things have been less tumultuous if Mallya had switched to a less flamboyant lifestyle? If the current state of Kingfisher Airlines can be traced to bad ledger-keeping that in turn led to worsening services - and it is tough for employees to keep smiling while wiping the dribble off the corner of a passenger's mouth if they don't get paid on time - would it have made any difference if Mallya had become thin, a regular satsang attendee, and started wearing his belt not near his chest but across his hips? Oo la-la-la-la lehh yo, I don't think so.

Even on the ethico-cosmetic front, I'm not sure whether Mallya should be lambasted for not toning down his over-the-top, under-the-arcs lifestyle while Kingfisher Airlines employees scrounge in neighbourhood dustbins. Perhaps, the sole reason why the man hasn't gone on an austerity spree (or on a diet) is because by looking like a normal guy calculating his provident fund amount, he may blow whatever chance he has of getting an interested party to bail the airlines out. Would you, for instance, be comfortable doing business with someone who behaves like a penny-pinching LIC agent?

Frankly, it's Mallya's booze business that's funding the heart-breaking 'Guys, I'm still loaded!' PR line that he's bravely laying out. All he needs to display is that he's not toning the party down. With the kind of money at his disposal, he doesn't need to tone it down. And he shouldn't. Look what happened to Naresh Goyal's Jet Airways in 2008 when the airline had planned to 'adjust' according to a toxic aviation climate. Hundreds of Jet's canary-coloured staff protested their lay-offs and things turned quite ugly. Goyal could have bought a Lamborghini just to show that things were not that bad with the company. But he didn't. Mallya has not only not fired any of his 'handpicked crew', but even as he docked their salaries, he refused to show any signs of unveiling a Budget Mallya. A gesture that even the desperate employees of Kingfisher Airlines have appreciated by not going ahead with their protest plans last week at the F1 Indian Grand Prix venue.

Mallya looks unlikely to convince someone with deep pockets and a shallow sense of risk to help him bail out his airline. But my worry is if he doesn't somehow save the airline, something more fundamental in the UB scheme of things could be damaged.

Not too long ago, I had attended a film screening as a guest member of the censor board. Every scene was passed - except one. The errant scene showed a Kingfisher Airline plane flying above puffy clouds. By looking at the 'bird' logo clearly visible on the tail, it was reckoned (and not without reason) that viewers would be reminded of the Kingfisher beer brand. And the rulebook prohibits alcohol brands to be shown in a film. So out went the few seconds of 'Kingfisher'. Keeping this porous cross-branding (two-way surrogate branding?) in mind, I fear that if the airline goes kaput, it will affect the beer brand and, by extension, UB's supremacy in the liquor market.

Which is why I'd rather have Mallya continue to behave as if he's a Russian oil oligarch minus the hookers so that someone gets impressed enough to throw him some serious money to save his pretty red-and-white airline - and thereby protect the real business that needs protecting: UB's booze basket.

And while he's at it, Mallya needs good accountants. Good accountants in swimsuits, if he cares for that kind of thing.

Published by HT Syndication with permission from Hindustan Times.