LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - Vijay Mallya, the fugitive Indian tycoon fighting multiple cases in the United Kingdom after defaulting on loans, lost a bid to avoid extradition to his home country where he faces charges of fraud and money laundering.
Judge Emma Arbuthnot ruled against Mallya at a hearing in London Monday (Dec 10), largely rejecting Mallya's arguments that the case was politically motivated.
"I do not accept the courts in India are there to do what the politicians tell them what to do," Arbuthnot told a packed courtroom. "There is no sign that this is a false case" to assuage Indian prosecutors' "political masters".
The ruling by the British court is a crucial win for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government, which has been battling to contain the political damage after some 31 Indians linked to fraud cases fled abroad to avoid prosecution.
With national elections due early next year, Modi is under pressure to act against wealthy defaulters as the nation's lenders step up efforts to clean up bad loans, partly by tightening bankruptcy rules.
"It is only the second time that a UK court has ordered extradition to India after many previous failures, many of which were down to their own incompetence," said Nick Vamos, a lawyer at Peters & Peters in London.
"The Indian authorities, including Prime Minister Modi, made no secret of their desperation to get Mr Mallya back to face trial, " he said.
Monday's verdict also comes days after a court in the United Arab Emirates ordered the extradition of a British national to India for questioning in a case linked to alleged bribes paid in a helicopter contract with AgustaWestland.
The wins may help boost the image of Modi, who's looking increasingly vulnerable with exit polls showing his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is losing ground to rivals in key state elections.
The UK judge told Mallya that he faced "a long process", and could remain free on bail in the meantime. The matter will be referred to the UK Home Office.
Mallya, who turns 63 this month, said the ruling was disappointing and that he has faith in his legal team.
Mallya was arrested in London in April 2017 after a consortium of 17 banks accused him of willfully defaulting on more than 91 billion rupees (S$1.7 billion) in debt accumulated by his Kingfisher Airlines - a full-service carrier he founded in 2005 and shut down seven years later.
A willful defaulter is someone who refuses to repay loans despite having the means to do so.
Dubbed the "king of good times" back in India after the tagline for Kingfisher beer, Mallya left the country in 2016 for England to be closer to his children and has since refused to return. While local authorities labelled the former lawmaker a "fugitive", he said he was facing trial by media with a "lynch mob mentality all too apparent", and doubted if he would get a fair trial back home.
Judge Arbuthnot said the case could be looked at two ways. One was that "various continuing failures were by design and with a motive (possibly financial) which is not clear from the evidence that has been put in front of me."
The other possibility is that bankers dealing with Mallya were "in thrall of this glamorous, flashy, famous, bejewelled, body-guarded, ostensibly billionaire playboy who charmed and cajoled these bankers into losing their common sense," Arbuthnot said.
Besides Mallya, India's government is also seeking to prosecute individuals including Nirav Modi, a jeweller who's been accused by Punjab National Bank of fraud, allegations he's denied.
Mallya, who has sparred with the local media for portraying him as the poster boy for the nation's bad loans, has maintained that his airline was an "unfortunate commercial failure" because of macroeconomic factors and government policies.
In tweets this month, Mallya denied the allegations against him but offered to pay lenders back the principal amount he owed.
After taking over a beer and liquor empire from his father in the 1980s, Mallya ventured into aviation with Kingfisher Airlines in a bid to redefine luxury travel in India. He was ranked the 45th-richest Indian by Forbes in 2012, with a net worth of US$1 billion.