Vijay Mallya saga: How a former liquor baron turned into India’s poster boy of bank defaults

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The poster boy of India’s bank default problem may finally be getting his comeuppance. On Tuesday, the police in the United Kingdom arrested industrialist and former liquor baron Vijay Mallya on behalf of Indian authorities. The 61-year-old, who owes 17 banks in India an estimated Rs 9,000 crore and stands accused of fraud and money laundering, was given bail soon after. But the process offers some hope that India’s extradition request, which was submitted to the UK earlier this year, will actually make some headway.

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Mallya, a former Rajya Sabha MP, left the country on March 2, 2016, the day public sector banks, to whom he owed an estimated Rs 9,091 crore in loans, moved the Debt Recovery Tribunal against him. The banks were hoping to restrain Mallya from leaving India and insisting he provided a security deposit to ensure that he turned up at debt recovery tribunal proceedings against him. But by then he was already in the UK, with the Indian government at the time saying they will look into what can be done to proceed with the case against the flamboyant industrialist.

How did Mallya end up being a “wilful defaulter” on the run?

Mallya’s story was never of rags to riches – and it’s unlikely to turn into one of riches to rags.

The billionaire inherited UB Spirits from his father and turned it around into India’s biggest spirits maker.

The company, known for Kingfisher beer, among the highest selling brands across the world, is, however, no longer his – and his fortunes are all but gone.

He was hardly as successful in any of his other umpteen businesses, including a full-service airline that’s now been grounded for four years and has dues of more than Rs 9,000 crore to pay to various banks.

Kingfisher Airlines was grounded in 2012 after failure to pay salaries to employees and a burgeoning debt burden which stopped the beleaguered airline to continue operating. The airline is now also being investigated for suspected diversion of funds and financial irregularities.

Mallya faces an enquiry for money laundering in a case registered by the Enforcement Directorate on the basis of a First Information Report filed by the CBI in relation to the Kingfisher Airline’s loans, which were allegedly granted in violation of norms pertaining to credit limits.

Once known for his firms’ steamy calendars, Mallya admitted last year that he had become the “poster boy” of bank defaults for his failure to pay his dues on the same loan.

How did Indian banks get caught in this mess?

The nation’s biggest public sector bank, the State Bank of India, is the leader of the consortium of 17 banks to which Mallya owes more than Rs 9,000 crore.

Justice Kurian Joseph asked the most obvious question in proceedings last year: “Was there no secured assets on these loans?”

Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi replied that when the loans were granted, Kingfisher Airlines was a brand at its peak, with assets worth some thousand crores, and then “it crashed”.

“We had some assets [as security] for the loans advanced,” he said.

Rohatgi said the proceedings have been pending since 2013. There have been at least 500 hearings in the case before tribunals in Goa and Bengaluru.

In 2010, Mallya surrendered goodwill and trademarks of the Kingfisher brand to the bank as security in the event of non-payment of dues. At the time, the brand value was about Rs 3,500 crore which has now reportedly come down to Rs 6 crore and banks are struggling to find even a single buyer for trademark.

Mallya might be the poster boy of bank defaults but he’s not the only one. Loans worth lakhs of crore rupees provided by Indian public sector banks are now classified as non-performing assets or NPAs and nobody knows for sure how much money will be recovered.

According to CBI, Mallya managed to get a Rs 900-crore loan from state-run bank Industrial Development Bank of India, which ignored warnings from some of its officers to hastily and unusually clear the massive amount in just a month in 2009. Kingfisher Airlines was already in acute financial distress by then.

What is Mallya’s response to the allegations?

Whataboutery and denial.

Just before leaving the country in 2016, Mallya wrote an open letter defending himself.

“All enquiries conducted have failed to find evidence of misappropriation of funds by Kingfisher Airlines or myself,” Mallya said. “Despite pledging blue chip securities and depositing significant amounts in court, a successful disinformation campaign has ensured my becoming the poster boy of all bank NPAs.”

Mallya claimed that he was willing to cooperate in the probe in his financials even as he worked out a one-time deal with the banks.

“Personally, I am not a borrower or a judgement defaulter,” Mallya said. He added that SBI has been fully aware of Kingfisher’s financial position for the last four years, indicating that the bank could not pretend to have been caught unawares now that the loans are proving to be irrecoverable.

Besides, he added that he was not the only one who owed money to banks.

“In fact, banks have NPAs of Rs 11 trillion and have borrowers who owe much more than the amount allegedly owed by Kingfisher Airlines to the banks – a fact never alluded to or widely reported by the media as in my case,” Mallya wrote.

He added: “None of these large borrowers (whose debt is significantly more than the KFA debt) have been declared wilful defaulters, but unfortunately, UB Holdings and I have been declared wilful defaulters by certain banks on technical grounds. I have legally challenged these declarations.”

Does this mean Mallya is no longer a billionaire?

Unlikely. Mallya has been more in the news for his lavish lifestyle than his business acumen and that’s something which almost everyone is expecting to continue – unless he ends up in jail. There’s an unmistakable pattern of ostentatious spending and Mallya’s own worsening financial wealth which many claim are interlinked.

In January 2016, when all this was still unfolding, Mallya spent a whopping Rs 9.5 crore to get Australian all-rounder Shane Watson to play for his Royal Challengers Bangalore Indian Premier League cricket team this season. He had bought this franchise back in 2008 for about US $111.6 million.

Mallya owns a 41.5% stake in the Force F1 team and allegedly, Kingfisher’s money was used to pay the F1 team in 2009 even though the airline’s losses were mounting.

What this means is that Mallya has never really cut back on extravagance, no matter what his financial position – and is unlikely to do so now.

What happens next?

The extradition process has now begun. In the initial hearing, the UK government simply informs the subject about the extradition request and sets a date for a proper hearing. This process is not a slam-dunk, since the United Kingdom – despite having an extradition treaty with India – applies a high bar for actually permitting someone to be declared a fugitive.

In particular, Mallya has constantly claimed that he is being persecuted by Indian authorities for something he did not do, which will likely be followed by his lawyers invoking Article 9 of the India-UK extradition treaty. This allows the accused to claim that the extradition request is simply a facade for persecution.

Mallya will also be free to challenge any decision by the tribunal at higher levels of the UK’s judiciary, meaning the case is unlikely to be concluded soon, even if the British government is amenable to handing him over. Nevertheless, the sustained progress in the case against him in India, including ensuring that he is named a proclaimed offender and getting a non-bailable warrant against him from a special court, strengthens India’s claim. The matter will no come up for an extradition hearing, unless Mallya moves a local British court against any orders first.

An earlier version of this piece appeared in 2016.