If Vijay Mallya wants to redeem himself, he can’t be the king of good times anymore.
Vijay Mallya is coming home.
Probably. If the all the powers that be agree. If he doesn’t buy citizenship to a lovely little island nation somewhere. If he agrees.
And if we know anything about wanted rich criminals it is this: Philanthropy helps. And expect no less from liquor baron Vijay Mallya.
We’re going to see a sea change in how he carries himself. Suddenly, a philanthropic foundation will find its way into the market and a few schools for underprivileged girls will be adopted. It’s going to be rigmarole of TV appearances, well-placed statements, and the old boys’ clubs forgiving him and working overtime to make us forget why he wasn’t around for very long.
You see, Indians love redemption. Especially, if it involves a little bit of religion as well. Show a person visiting a temple, serving langar at a gurdwara, or on some kind of yatra, and it’s saat khoon maaf (often literally).
After all, it has been done in history, politics, Bollywood and Lutyens’ circuits.
Valmiki was a dacoit before he wrote Ramayana. Rajiv Gandhi escaped the 1984 blot and reinvented himself and was feted by his fans as the one who ushered in computers in India; Modi after 2002, went on to add vibrancy to Gujarat, brought in investments and appropriated the vikas purush title; Salman Khan’s Being Human garnered him the trust of Bollywood; the Kuber of Kaun Banega Crorepati distributed crores to the poor after his company Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Ltd went bankrupt; Suhel Seth is fulfilling his duties as a grihasth (and probably hoping that a splashy wedding with close friends as guests will distract us from the accusations of sexual assault against him).
This isn’t new. We’re, for a society that doesn’t look too kindly on any kind of deviation, exceptionally good at rehabilitating our wayward billionaires. Think of how India Inc welcomed former convict Rajat Gupta back. Or you know, how Anil Ambani was just allowed to move past non-delivery of Navy vessels into another fancy defence deal.
This is especially true for our prodigals abroad. We’re obsessed with Indians who make it big across the kaala paani, according them pedestals they don’t deserve. We are so desperate for these role models that we will collectively give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to our fallen heroes.
Billionaires across the world are rather distasteful, but the Indian variety seems almost grotesque in their spending. Our Gini coefficient is at an all-time high of 0.50. It measures the rich-poor wealth divide. This is then further rubbed into people’s faces with multi-crore weddings, strange hushed car crashes and reckless spending.
India’s economic inequality, although historical, isn’t inherent. It directly stems from how Indian millionaires and billionaires have harnessed existing structures of caste and other oppressions to maintain their status quo. Think Vedanta Mining and tribal rights in Niyamgiri.
A lack of empathy. A lack of any kind of understanding of what the ground realities look like. And an absolute disconnect with the cause and effect of their actions.
That’s what their personal lives look like too. There’s an absolute lack of accountability. They assume themselves to be above the law. But they are not above the judgement and anger of the masses – the ‘log kya kahenge?’ rules of the self-appointed moral custodians of India – the middle class. And that, I think, is the Indian billionaire’s downfall.
You can ignore and silence criticism about your inhuman work, sure. But can you really ignore the judgement and hate the middle classes have for your excesses? Vijay Mallya’s downfall wasn’t really his mismanagement of Kingfisher Airlines or his payment default. That, his friends in high places could’ve handled. It was his persona. Finally, Indians could put a face to their anger against the rich and the flashy who seemed to get away with everything. His hamartia wasn’t his lack of business acumen, it was his lack of apology for it.
The lavish IPL after parties, the grand private yacht, the splurging of crores to buy Tipu Sultan’s sword, the luxurious fugitive life in London (his mansion reportedly has a golden toilet) — he really focussed on being the king of good times.
Billionaires like Mallya, in their absolute brashness, often don’t realise the power of being relatable. And this is often their undoing.
If any criminal (or possibly criminal) billionaire is reading this, here’s a way to reduce the outfall when you’re eventually caught. Be apologetic about your wealth. Sound vaguely embarrassed about it. Have photos of you driving your own car (ideally a slightly older model) PR-ed once in a while. Talk about how your kids are just not studying, and how you have so much to complain about. Convince us that you’re Just Like Us™.
The author is a poet.