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The story of a flashy businessman who fled town with massive debts has captivated India. The liquor baron faces criminal investigations and the prospect of an international arrest warrant. From New Delhi, NPR's Julie McCarthy reports.
JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Surrounded by a galaxy of Indian stars, businessman Vijay Mallya launched Kingfisher Airlines in 2005. The rich playboy hand-picked the cabin crew and promised passengers they were in for the ride of their lives.
The same might be said of the shareholders. The fleet's been grounded for over three years, and a share today is worth less than two cents. Angry employees whom Mallya personally assured would be compensated are still waiting. So is the tax man, says columnist and senior journalist Shekhar Gupta.
SHEKHAR GUPTA: India's labor laws are very strong. In his case, not only has he not paid employees, but even the statutory dues - for example, the tax his company deducted on the employees' salaries, income tax - has not been paid to the exchequer. These are serious offenses.
MCCARTHY: Even more troubling - Kingfisher Airline reportedly owes state-controlled banks a total of 70 billion rupees - just over $1 billion.
While the banks hound Mallya as a willful defaulter, investigators want to know if he siphoned off funds from the airline to finance his extravagant lifestyle. He has real estate holdings said to include a game lodge in South Africa, a Castle in Scotland and a condo at the Trump Plaza in New York. Mallya's flamboyance, his fabled parties complete with calendar girls, set him apart and alienated sympathy for him, says commentator Sashi Kumar.
SASHI KUMAR: It's good to have money. It's good to have a good life. But being seen as someone who's always with women and flaunting, kind of, money, the in-your-face kind of character - that runs against the grain of the Indian ethic of someone who's successful.
MCCARTHY: Mally's defunct airline bore the same name as India's best-selling Kingfisher Beer, the brand Mallya inherited from his late father. Author K. Giriprakash chronicled the life of the colorful son in the book "The Vijay Mallya Story." He credits him with burnishing the image of India's liquor industry. Mallya chairs India's largest brewery but says it was not a case of like-father, like-son.
K. GIRIPRAKASH: His father was very meticulous was very careful with money, especially shareholders' money. And he stuck to the business which he knew.
MCCARTHY: Giriprakash says Mallya's dissent began when he acquired stakes not just in the challenging airline industry but in engineering, construction and Formula One racing.
GIRIPRAKASH: At one point of time, he was doing everything right. But this issue of diversification actually did him in.
MCCARTHY: Mallya is no ordinary indebted impresario. He amassed his huge debt while serving as a member of the upper house of the Indian Parliament. Senior journalist Shekhar Gupta blames what he calls India's easy embrace of cronyism and says lending money to Mallya was the bankers' ticket in.
GUPTA: If you are his lender, you're invited to sit in his box at a cricket match, which is a big event in India. You get invited on his yacht, on the plane. He collected money, glamour, hormones, alcohol all in the same place. He's the finest and the loudest brand ambassador for crony capitalism in India.
MCCARTHY: Mallya flew to London just as the courts were hearing petitions to keep him in India. On Twitter, the 60-year-old says he's not absconding and has asked for more time to appear before the Indian authorities who are battling financial crime. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi.
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