The two main excuses elusive liquor baron Vijay Mallya used for long to not return to India and pay back the Rs 9,000 crore loans his defunct airline, Kingfisher Airlines, owes to 17-Indian banks are practically non-existent now. If Mallya still doesn’t return and face the law of the land, the Narendra Modi government should call out his bluff and convince the UK government, where he currently lives, to initiate a clampdown on Mallya.
Mallya left the country on 2 March after the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) corrected an ‘inadvertent’ error in their look-out notice and precisely a week before banks moved Supreme Court seeking to detain him.
No media trial now
Mallya’s first excuse was that the media trial, both in India and UK, which he had described as a ‘raging fire’ and ‘witch hunt’, prompted him to consider that the time was not right then to return to India.
TV anchors have stopped spitting fire on him for some time now and newsrooms have largely run out of ideas on the Mallya issue, except when a fresh court warrant/summon is issued against him (there have been quite of them by now). So, for now, there is no witch-hunt for sure.
Nearly seven months after Mallya flew off to safer lands, even the courts seem to have developed a sense of humor while describing his case. On Monday, the Bombay High Court made an interesting remark observing that the businessman aptly named his company 'Kingfisher', and like the bird of the same name he too flew away without bothering about boundaries.
“Does anyone know why he (Mallya) came up with the name 'Kingfisher' for his entity? In history no one could have come up with a more apt name for this entity. Because Kingfisher is a bird that can fly away...it knows no boundaries...no boundaries can stop it. Just like how no one could stop him (Mallya)," the PTI quoted Justice S C Dharmadhikari, who was part of the bench hearing an appeal filed by the Service Tax department and also another petition filed by the department seeking to recall the auction sale of Mallya's private aircraft.
Even politicians like Congress party Vice President Rahul Gandhi seems to have almost forgotten the issue after a short-lived protest in Parliament and a blame session on the Modi-government.
Passport excuse no longer valid
Mallya’s second excuse, of not having a valid passport (his passport was revoked by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in April on the recommendations of the Enforcement Directorate) too is irrelevant now. The government has clarified that Mallya doesn’t need a passport should he wish to return to the country, face the law and pay back the money he owes to the banks. All that Mallya has to do is approach the local Indian Embassy or High Commission to get a travel document.
“Our position is very clear. Any Indian citizen who is outside India and who does not have a valid travel document for any reason, only has to approach the nearest Indian embassy or the high commission and apply for an emergency certificate,” said MEA spokesperson Vikas Swarup, according to PTI.
Swarup’s comments came after Mallya recently conveyed to a Delhi court that he wants to return, but is unable to travel back as his passport has been suspended by the Indian government.
Will Mallya return?
In the backdrop of Mallya’s two excuses vanishing into thin air, the question is: Will he now return to the country and pay back the money he owes to the banks? Or will he continue his delaying tactics?
So far, Mallya has continued to adopt a confrontational approach with banks and the government on the issue. Unlike other borrowers who adhere to rules and pay back loans, Mallya wants to settle the loan on his own terms. Even the Rs 9,000 crore figure is disputed.
Take for instance, Mallya’s response in the 29 April interview to UK-Based Financial Times on the actions being taken against him by the Indian government. “We wish to settle at a reasonable number that we can afford and banks can justify on the basis of settlements done before,” Mallya said in the FT interview,” adding, “by taking my passport or arresting me, they are not getting any money.”
Mallya’s intention to pay back the money was under question from the very beginning considering that the Kingfisher loan, for which he offered personal guarantee to the banks, turned into a Non-Performing Asset (NPA) way back in 2011-2012.
Since then, till the time the issue grabbed intense media attention when Mallya left the country in March, there were hardly any serious attempts from the part of Kingfisher to settle their dues. If Mallya wanted to settle it, he could have done it much before the liability increased on account of the interest getting accrued on the principal.
Mallya later questioned the Rs 9,000 crore figure. Though Mallya offered to pay part of the loans to banks, the latter could not accept the offer since that would set a bad precedent for other defaulters.
As Firstpost noted in an earlier article, the Mallya-Kingfisher case hasn’t made any serious progress six months after the issue broke out. This is despite several attempts by the bank consortium, the government and investigative agencies bid to nail Mallya and get him to repay the money and after courts issuing warnings against him.
The case is pretty much at the point where it all started in 2012. Mallya has so far denied any wrongdoing such as diversion of funds or misuse.
Now, the Narendra Modi government is said to be readying to invoke a 21-year-old bilateral treaty with the United Kingdom to get him back. Under the 1995 treaty-- Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT)-- countries can seek "transfer of persons, including persons in custody, for the purpose of assisting in investigations or giving evidence in proceedings".
The larger point is this: Mallya has clearly run out of excuses not to return to the country and face the law of the land. It is time that the liquor baron takes a flight back and comes clean on the massive issue of loan default and alleged financial irregularities. That is, if he intends to pay back the money to the banks, which is ultimately public money. Else, the government should call out his bluff.