Crash-landing of a 'desi' Branson

Disclaimer: I once accepted the hospitality of Vijay Mallya onboard an hour’s sortie over New Delhi!

My defence: That was the only time, I did. I couldn’t kick the ride on an Airbus A-380. I got sucked into the PR hype of being part of “history,” the first such landing into an Indian airport.

As I got checked in via the most gorgeous of Mallya’s ladies showering petals at specially erected gateways, the airstrip rumoured to have been extended by a few metres, I was told at the tacky five-star chalet that my cameraman wasn’t allowed on the plane. The reporter in me decided to revise my lessons on filming, sneak in a beta cam on my own boarding pass all the same, and with Mallya giving me dirty looks even as he waltzed NDTV boss Vikram Chandra on a plane he didn’t yet own (only two lifestyle channel crews had been granted the royal nod, Chandra’s hyphenated with the Kingfisher name being one of them) I attempted elaborate walk-throughs for the channel I worked for at that time.

As I did that, a bit of a wannabe among the country’s movers and shakers, ministers and scions, babus and fixers, bankers and aviation experts, I forgot the basics. Was it the truly good-looking babes of the Page-3 pedigree or the nearly 50 ‘goras’ heading embassies and Airbus swooning over my country’s imminent march to economic superpowerdom, I din’t ask what would work in India. Those consigned to the troubles of those living in Dwarka down below ceased to be on my mind. I had on board, who else but Mallya, the “visionary,” the only one with the moolah to try and bring the A-380 to us, the toiling masses, the flight symbolising the real story of India’s take off.

Incidentally, the ones who helped me do my anchor links for what ended up being a full-length 24-minutes show were two certified blue-collars like me, the two “official” cameramen on board!

Next day, our press was full of Mallya. More than one “expert” said his class act would remain one of the glorious chapters in India’s economic reforms story! Surely, the booze served on board, illegally of course, had had some role to play. But suffice to say, not one commentator questioned the financials, no one came within a mile of predicting the obliteration of Kingfisher.

Whither A-380s?

Five years after the champagne and caviar the Capital’s elite had that evening lies ingested by the gutters of the Yamuna, there’s no sign of the gentle beast. There’s not an iota of apology for carrying without comment the recent announcement that 10 A-380s would join Kingfisher.

There’s no sign of an apology to Mallya or those who worked for him either. We should have told you!

So, where’s that left us now? Even the few planes that are left (Mallya peaked at 92 and another 60 placed on order) lie in dusty hangars, the Airports Authority determined not to let the lenders take them away until the parking dues are settled.

Suddenly, everyone’s wiser. There’s an overdose of advice for Vijay Mallya. The new-found discourse has boiled down to a man losing the handle over expenses, delegating too little and to the wrong guys, ignoring the leaks in the airship thinking his beer would take care, and, of course, betting too much on political clout to be able to swing FDI via a foreign airline. There’s also been protests on remaining insensitive to employee travails, not to mention audacious social messaging by son Sid Mallya, fixated on his Kingfisher calendar shoots.

Corporate misgovernance

Amidst all these valid points, doesn’t the real blame lie in corporate misgovernance inherent in banks lending Mallya more and more, often just to retire an earlier debt, invariably without corresponding securitisation? Surely, as any rapacious businessman, Mallya loved cheap money. But wasn’t it for the lenders, some of them blue-chip state sector banks, to draw the line?

Like the A-380 party highlighted above, Mallya wasn’t alone in the seduction away from terra firma. Why, for starters, was an airline allowed to carry the name of a beer, when advertising of spirits isn’t allowed? Worse, perhaps, how did the ministry of information and broadcasting, compound this surrogacy by licensing an entire channel by that name? Did Mallya’s United Brewery pay a corresponding brand royalty to the airline for this free ride? If not, why didn’t the independent directors demand it?

So, let’s confess something. All of us, the so-called experts, are parties to the disaster. Unwittingly, we fell for Mallya’s parties, we coveted the tickets to his races, we felt good if only he knew us by our first names.

But to the defence of us mere mortals, even the venerable Richard Branson, the original James Dean on who Mallya apparently modeled his life, didn’t warn his clone early enough. Only now has Branson said, to a TV channel, somewhat ironically: “I think flamboyance is dangerous. If you do show your wealth to the world too much, I think that’s dangerous for any business person and I think you’ve got to get that balance right and particularly in somewhere like India, where there are a lot of poor people.”

To that when the interviewer asked, “...but what would you say to those who say he fashions himself on Richard Branson?” Branson replied: “I think that nobody is going to be remembered for having how much money they’ve got in the bank when they are going to die and I think it’s extremely important that all entrepreneurs, all businessmen use their entrepreneurial skills to get out and help governments help social workers tackle the problems of this world...and I think the employees who work for those companies should be that much proud of the company if the company becomes a force for good.”
Why is sanity showered on us when it’s all over?

(The writer is CEO & Co-Founder, India Strategy Group, Hammurabi & Solomon Consulting.)

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