When businessman Vijay Mallya left India in March 2016, it was no ordinary trip as he was carrying around 300 bags and a massive cargo container in order to flee the country. Little did people know at that time that this tainted tycoon and his grey mane would not be returning any time soon.
Nor was he travelling in his self-indulgent private jet, which has Mallya’s initials ‘VJM’ painted in gold on its engine and wingtips. A month later, his passport was revoked by New Delhi formally kick-starting a lengthy deportation procedure.
Mallya, once a flamboyant industrialist turned reviled figure, planned an overnight trip to the UK in order to escape the clutches of a multi-agency probe in India aimed at cracking down on his financial crimes.
The embattled 63-year-old liquor baron stands accused of swindling 90bn Indian Rupees ($3.1bn) from 17 Indian banks through money laundering and is being pursued by more than one law enforcement agency. Investigative agencies accuse Mallya of knowingly misleading state-owned financial institutions regarding the value of his airline in order to funnel funds into his own personal accounts and private projects.
Mallya inherited a struggling family business in his late 20s following the death of his father from a sudden cardiac arrest. He quickly turned the business around and became a feted symbol of India’s aspiring middle class, going on to spearhead the country’s biggest liquor company.
One of the traits he is most commonly known for in India, a conservative country, are his yearly swimsuit calendars featuring himself surrounded by scantily clad models. His booze-fuelled New Year parties – occasions he used to flaunt his connections with the Bollywood and business elite – take a close second place.
Mallya, nicknamed by the media as India’s Richard Branson, was a larger-than-life individual known as the ‘king of good times’ because of his liquor brand. Troubles first started brewing when his fledgeling Kingfisher Airlines nosedived and eventually shut down in 2012.
At its peak, his airline accounted for 25% of domestic travel, and his beer brand held a massive 50% market share. His United Breweries Group conglomerate had interests in real estate and fertilizer as well.
Mallya has also flirted with politics, having twice been nominated as a member of the Indian Parliament’s upper house.
However, the tipping point occurred in December 2015. He had organised an extravagant two-day celebration to mark his 60th birthday, which took place at his beachfront mansion amid financial difficulties. This enraged government leaders, slow-moving law enforcement and febrile television channels alike. Following public outcry, Mallya was pounced upon, and made the “poster boy” for bad loans, in his own words.
What was originally expected to be a protracted legal battle led by the notoriously sluggish Indian state establishment turned into a fast-moving clampdown for Mallya forcing him to flee to the UK – a country where he holds permanent residency and owns an £11.5mn mansion in the sleepy English village of Hertfordshire.
In January 2017, the Indian foreign ministry made a formal extradition request to the British High Commission in New Delhi.
In January this year, a special court in Mumbai declared Mallya a ‘fugitive economic offender’ – making him the first dubious businessman to be charged under the new law – meaning the government can now legally confiscate his properties in order to repay outstanding banks loans.
Another blow followed in early February when British home secretary ordered Mallya’s extradition, which his lawyers plan to fight in higher courts. Earlier, a district judge in the UK described Mallya as a “glamorous, flashy, famous, bejewelled, bodyguarded, ostensibly billionaire playboy who charmed and cajoled these bankers into losing their common sense and persuading them to put their own rules and regulations to one side”.
In his defence, Mallya staunchly denies all the charges of financial crimes and blames the Modi administration of a witch-hunt in order to gain political traction from his case.
Even if he exhausts all his legal options fighting against extradition from the UK, Mallya should accept the reality that he will be sent back to India within the next eight months to two years, legal experts say.
India’s Enforcement Directorate, the economic intelligence agency leading the investigation, said on February 7th that Barrack 12 in Arthur Road Jail in Mumbai – which receives natural daylight, has a television set and ample medical facilities – is prepared to host Mallya once extradition has been completed.