Wanted Indian tycoon defiant despite arrest

Kingfisher Airlines founder Vijay Mallya (centre) at a 2012 Formula One event. Last week, he was arrested by Scotland Yard and then released on bail in what the Indian authorities said was the beginning of extradition proceedings.
Kingfisher Airlines founder Vijay Mallya (centre) at a 2012 Formula One event. Last week, he was arrested by Scotland Yard and then released on bail in what the Indian authorities said was the beginning of extradition proceedings.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Over a year ago, Indian businessman Vijay Mallya, 61, once known as the "King of Good Times" for his flamboyant lifestyle, secretively left India for Britain as banks were pushing for his arrest for defaulting on loans worth billions.

He managed to escape the direct clutches of Indian investigators, but Dr Mallya's troubles were far from over.

Last Tuesday, he was arrested by Scotland Yard in London and then released on bail in what the Indian authorities said was the beginning of extradition proceedings.

Still, the businessman, who has accused the Indian media and government of a witch hunt, remained defiant, noting that the arrest was just part of the expected proceedings.

"Usual Indian media hype. Extradition hearing in court started today as expected," he tweeted as Indian television channels debated what this meant for the disgraced tycoon.

Later he tweeted: "Glad that some media are putting facts in perspective. Surrender of passport, arrest, bail all part of normal extradition proceedings."

While the Indian government has no guarantee of getting him back as extradition proceedings are usually lengthy and complex, the arrest is a blow for the businessman, who inherited his father's business, built it up into a much bigger business and then lost it all.

Born and educated in Calcutta, now Kolkata, Dr Mallya's father was the chairman of United Breweries Group. Dr Mallya was educated at La Martiniere school and then graduated with a commerce degree from St Xavier's College.

He joined the family business, at first managing the brewing and spirits divisions but taking over at the age of 28 as chairman following the death of his father.

He went on to build up the liquor empire, including with international acquisitions such as Glasgow-based Whyte & Mackay in 2007 while diversifying into other areas from real estate to biotechnology and information technology.

Unlike his father - a low-key conservative businessman - Dr Mallya was flamboyant and did not hesitate in flaunting his wealth.

"I live the way I want to live, and I don't comment on the way that other people live," he once said.

He was often photographed with models, threw yacht parties in Monaco, owned over a dozen luxury homes, had his own private jets, owned a cricket team and, till now, continues to be co-owner of the Force India Formula One team.

By 2007, his fortune had hit a high at US$1.6 billion (S$2.2 billion), according to Forbes.

On the personal front, Dr Mallya, who was also deeply religious, divorced first wife Ameera Tyabjee, mother to his son Siddharth, and married Rekha, who gave him two daughters, Leana and Tanya.

It was his ambition for owning an airline that proved to be his undoing.

He launched Kingfisher Airlines, which was named after his company's popular beer, on his son Siddharth's 18th birthday in 2005.

The airlines flew against the trend of budget airlines, providing free meals and valet services. It ran for seven years and, at one point, was India's second largest airline. But high fuel costs - which, at the time, made up 50 per cent of operating costs - high airport taxes and competition from budget airlines, apart from the cost of providing frills to customers - led to the demise of the airline by 2012.

By then, he was saddled with loans that came to billions of rupees.

His financial troubles only continued to mount as he sold most of his shares in United Spirits and gave management control to Britain's Diageo in 2012.

As his business empire was crumbling around him, Dr Mallya attracted widespread criticism for continuing to enjoy the good life even as dozens of employees of the defunct Kingfisher Airlines were not paid for months on end.

After being labelled a "wilful defaulter" by the State Bank of India, he threw himself a lavish 60th birthday bash in December 2015 in which pop singer Enrique Iglesias was specially flown in to perform.

Still, the good times have seemingly now come to an end, although there are no estimates on his current wealth. His ultra luxurious Kingfisher villa in Goa was recently sold for around 730 million rupees (S$15.8 million), as banks scramble to recover their money.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 24, 2017, with the headline 'Wanted Indian tycoon defiant despite arrest'. Print Edition | Subscribe