Perverted priorities!

The country and its rulers are worried stiff. And why not? Vijay Mallya is in deep financial trouble. So too the Indian farmer. But since VM’s main mascots, the wafer-thin, skimpily clad models actually look more impoverished than the Indian farmer, the government and the media seem all eyes and ears to the liquor baron’s plight. Also, with booze above food in terms of rupee value of consumption and alcoholics set to outnumber gluttons, VM’s fall will probably hurt the nation and its ‘kudi’magans more and in many ways. Indeed, the issue is not about Kingfisher airlines being grounded but the rest of his precious and prosperous booze business coming crashing down along with it.

What can one say about national priorities when food producing farmers are allowed to commit suicide owing to debt but debt-ridden whisky vendors simply cannot be left to perish just like that? None less than the PM of the nation has spontaneously made an unsolicited statement, on board his flight coincidentally, that the KF airline had to be saved. Quote:’ When I get back I will talk to the Civil Aviation Minister and we will explore ways and means in which the Airlines can be helped’. This hardened globaliser and champion of free market was ironically at his sympathetic best, a privilege that had somehow escaped the aam addmis he is supposed to be caring for. Taking the cue, the entire financial system is now obsessed with a bail-out package to salvage what is obviously a sinking airship. Rubbing salt into this bleeding injury on the national finances is VM’s statement that he never sought any aid from the government. Why should he when it is coming on a platter and with all comfort to his easy conscience?

Sending good money after bad money through such a bottomless bucket somehow does not raise the prudential hackles of India’s smart bankers known to wield the legal and sundry other sticks against the less fortunate in earnest eagerness and dutiful diligence. The moment a few global rating agencies downgraded India’s banking system on the pretext of mounting NPAs, the riot started with panicky banks suddenly tightening up on borrowers, a move that may actually cause more NPAs now. In another display of the nation’s skewed priorities, the small and medium level borrowers, the biggest contributors in terms of national revenue and jobs are the worst hit. Apart from the financial destruction wrought by paranoid bankers in blinkers, the hounding, humiliation and harassment faced by these borrowers also puts paid to whatever residual entrepreneurial spirit is left in them. But somehow the big and prolific defaulters like Mallya are deemed exempt from such embarassments, emerging with their business zeal intact to graze on more pastures. Indeed, even the idea of a free meal to VM stinks.

But the larger sociological picture is uglier. The sight of corporate CEOs and other honchos in designer suits lining up before the State coffers seeking alms ahead of multitudes in loin cloth struggling to catch the same ‘welfare’ State’s attention is a huge aberration. Of course, this seems to be a global phenomenon. When financial meltdown hit the US in ‘08, the stimulus package that was unfolded largely went to the pockets of the private entities that actually caused the crisis. The ‘Occupy Wall St’ movement of recent vintage is a direct result of such misplaced sympathies of the policy makers. Of course, in India, the people are ever on the streets and in dire straits while the political elite always prefers the business elites and their cool, cosy seminar halls once in power. VMs are, therefore, natural allies and beneficiaries in a loaded political system. No matter, if KF airlines that criss-crosses India means nothing to virtually the whole of that India.

The cliched class conflict finds fresh fertile ground here. Mallya is the latest rep of all that is rotten with wealth and the capitalist system itself — inequity, extravagance, vulgar display, moral corruption et al. Liquor and racing are his prime passions, personally and professionally too, constituting the bulk of his financial inflows and outflows. This would not merit mention but for the fact that his beleaugured airline business which drew its financial and brand sustenance from those activities is likely to draw on public funds in some form. While liquor money may have funded the airlines in the past, ‘vice’-versa from public money, now a huge possibility, would be a perversion. This second richest RS MP sent bottles as new year gift to his fellow Paliamentarians, a natural hangover for a liquor-magnate-turned politician. The huge money that eludes his airline business somehow lands in his kitty for splurging on IPL teams, F1 bashes, glitzy calendars, high-profile auctions etc. Once again, we wouldnt ask if bankers had asked first before restructuring as they do with other borrowers. Nor would we mind his high-flying lifestyle (he was even an NRI once) were he treated as an ordinary defaulter like the lowly others. Indeed, helping out VM, a habitual business adventurer, is a crime against the rest of Bharrath’s humanity.

Still, Mallya’s financial woes would serve some public interest if it were to draw attention to the problem of debt. Debt is death and everyone of us is staring at it in some form or the other. The noose will descend and the fineprint will turn a bold banner once any one of the imponderables materialises as happened during the last three years of recession. Debt default is the nation’s common denominator, the great leveller; Corporate India’s nemesis is also the killer of the tiller and the weapon of mass destruction ravaging middle and lower India. With easy business loans, retail credit, micro credit and a slew of ‘products’ luring people into unwanted consumption and ambitious businesses, thousands of individuals, households, small and medium businesses are drowned in debt from head to toe. It is time M Singh took a look at the country he is supposed to be running from lower altitudes.

Indeed in debt the bulk of India can claim to be in the boisterous company of VM, the King, fishing in troubled waters and now caught in some bad times. Cheers for that.

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Jawahar T R