There is nothing either sweet or delightful about irony when it militates against commonly perceived ideas of justice and fair play. Hence, although it is ironic that an allegedly broke Vijay Mallya, who owes public sector banks in India Rs 9,000 crore, should have sought shelter in Britain which once upon a time sent bankrupt men to "poor houses" and debtors prisons, there is little or no satisfaction to be drawn from this irony.
There's more to the story about the flamboyant business tycoon, who made his fortune selling beer, slipping out of the country just before the courts were to decide on how to deal with him and recover dues from whatever he still has to his name, including the $75 million settlement paid to him by liquor major Diageo for handing over one of his companies.
Mallya is a Rajya Sabha member in his second term. As a lawmaker in the Upper House of Parliament, he routinely participated in scrutinising policy and voting on Bills. He showcased his role as MP on his dedicated website www.mallyainparliament.in and enjoyed cross-party support.
He used his diplomatic passport, to which he is entitled as an MP, to leave India for the salubrious surroundings of Hertfordshire in the UK, on March 2. That passport should expire in June when his term comes to an end. Would the government refuse to issue him a regular passport if he does not return by then? Has the government informed countries that he stands stripped of diplomatic privileges and immunities guaranteed by the Red Passport he now carries?
Parliament, more specifically Rajya Sabha where the Congress and its allies have a majority, could force that. But Mallya has more friends than foes. Barring a lone BJP MP, who was outraged that he should have been sent a bottle of "Kala Kutta" on New Year's eve, no other honourable member of Parliament is known to have returned his expensive gift hampers or the truck stop Kingfisher calendars.
Stories abound of favours sought from, and given by, Mallya. He has bluntly reminded "media bosses" that they owe him more than a dinner or a lunch or a free ride on the now defunct Kingfisher Airlines. That would equally apply to politicians, bureaucrats, fixers, dealers - indeed the entire Lutyen's ecosystem is beholden to him.
The Congress, which is now demanding Mallya be brought back from wherever he is hiding (from the media at the moment) and paraded in sackcloth and ashes, facilitated his entry into Parliament. It had no compunction about Mallya, the owner of an airline, being a member of the Consultative Committee on Civil Aviation.
Nor does it bother the Congress that Mallya ran up a debt of Rs 9,000 crore at the expense of public sector banks while the UPA was in power from 2004 to 2014.
That big cheques were being written out to him even after Kingfisher Airlines had crash-landed. That he was beggaring IDBI in defiance of all norms. That he was cheating his Indian employees of their legitimate dues while partying in Goa with the rich and famous.
The story, however, is not only about the man who was hailed as a hero for bringing Tipu Sultan's sword back to India after buying it for £175,000 at an auction in London. He succeeded where the government shamefacedly failed when he picked up Gandhi memorabilia for $1.8 million at an auction in New York. The government of the day in those "good times" was grovellingly indebted to him for saving its "izzat".
Mallya's transgressions are representative of the loot that happened during Congress years. While Congress president Sonia Gandhi's army of the virtuous, the NAC, was busy promoting poverterianism as policy, those in government and outside were pursuing aggrandisement by using an extremely malleable system to their advantage.
Some loans turned turtle even before UPA exited office, others are turning belly-up now with public sector banks being forced to clean up their books.
The scale of accumulated and accumulating bad loans, or non-performing assets, is mind-boggling. Financial figures for quarter ended December 2015 show NPAs hover above five per cent of all loans; add to that potential bad loans and the total is at 11 per cent.
One analysis of the December quarter results placed the gross NPAs of 24 public sector banks at Rs 3,93,035 crore. That's almost one-and-a-half times the total market value of these banks which stood at Rs 2,62,955 crore in end-December 2015. A year ago, the NPAs of these banks totalled Rs 2,61,918 crore.
Clearly businesses that were financially unviable but politically viable are now going kaput. We witnessed the apogee of crony capitalism during the UPA years, now we are witnessing the end of the "good times" that Mallya had come to symbolise.
So where do we go from here? Banks can't stop lending. But surely systemic changes can be brought about? The Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code of 2015, introduced in the Lok Sabha last year, is winding its way through the parliamentary committee process. It may yet pass through the Lok Sabha during the second half of the Budget Session, but its future in the Rajya Sabha remains uncertain.
But will a new law suffice? Informed corrective policy is possible only through informed public debate. That has not been possible in the absence of information. We know the name of the Tamil Nadu farmer who committed suicide after being harassed and humiliated for defaulting on Rs 2 lakh he owed his bank. We have no clue as to who are defaulters who owe our public banks nearly Rs 4 lakh crore.
A good first step would be a white paper with full disclosure. Those who have defaulted on such huge sums, more often than not wilfully, cannot be entitled to client confidentiality. We know of Mallya. Why can't we know of the others? What fear in naming them? If that means shaming them, so be it.
(Courtesy of Mail Today.)