Mallya exit fuels political anger in India

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

NEW DELHI (AP) — India's government has been accused of "criminal conspiracy" for allowing Formula One team boss and flamboyant businessman Vijay Mallya to leave the country while being pursued over massive debts.

Mallya, who is also a member of the upper house of India's parliament, left India on March 2 and is thought to be in England, Attorney-General Mukul Rohtagi told the country's top court this week.

The opposition Congress Party leader Ghulam Nabi Azad on Thursday accused the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi of "a criminal conspiracy in letting Mallya fly out of the country."

India's finance minister Arun Jaitley defended Mallya's exit, saying the banks had not initiated the legal process to prevent him from leaving the country by the time he boarded a flight out of India.

Once hailed as an Indian version of Richard Branson for his investments in a brewing and liquor company, an airline and F1 team Force India, Mallya is now being chased by the banks, regulators and the judiciary for 90 billion rupees ($1.3 billion) he owes to lenders.

Even after India's state-run State Bank of India declared him a "wilful defaulter", Mallya hosted a big bash to celebrate his 60th birthday in the beach resort town of Goa last December. It was attended by more than 200 people, featuring a fireworks display and performance by Spanish pop star Enrique Iglesias.

His downfall was triggered by the failure of Kingfisher Airlines, which he launched in 2005. The Indian government in 2012 suspended the license of the airline after it failed to pay pilots and engineers for months.

Aviation experts put Kingfisher's outstanding debt at $2.5 billion.

Mallya ceded management control of his flagship United Spirits Limited to global spirits company Diageo. It was Diageo's agreement last month to pay $75 million in exchange for resigning as chairman of USL which prompted the latest legal push by competing creditors, who say they should have the first claim on that money.

Mallya is famous for his flashy lifestyle and lavish parties attended by fashion models, Bollywood movie stars and cricket players.

He owns other businesses in industries ranging from chemicals to information technology. He also owns the Royal Challengers, a team in the lucrative India Premier League cricket competition.