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‘King of Good Times’ flees India, and $1.3 billion debt

Finance Minister Jaitley insists businessman Vijay Mallya will be made to pay back "every penny" of a $1.3 billion debt. But the claim is dubious given Mallya's wealth is drastically diminished and he's fled the country.

India's opposition ripped into the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for allowing former liquor mogul Vijay Mallya to flee the country after his failed businesses ran up debts topping 90 billion Indian rupees ($1.34 billion, 1.21 billion euros).

Much of Mallya's debt is owed to banks, which asked the Supreme Court on Wednesday to block him from leaving the country, but it was already too late. The 60-year-old businessman fled the country on March 2, and is thought to be in London.

The opposition Congress Party demanded to know how Mallya - the self-described ‘King of Good Times' - was allowed to flee when so many banks had taken legal action to try to claw back the debt.

"Why was Vijay Mallya not arrested?" Congress lawmaker Ghulam Nabi Azad asked in parliament.

The BJP's Finance Minister Arun Jaitley admitted to parliament that Mallya had run up massive debts, but he vowed that the state and financial institutions would recover the lost funds.

"The banks are taking all steps to recover every penny lent to him and they will recover it," Jaitley said to jeers from opposition MPs.

"Before his passport could be seized, he had left the country," the minister added.

A fortune in liquor sales

Mallya lived a flamboyant lifestyle, fueled in the early 2000s by a fortune made in liquor sales. He began expanding into other business ventures, most notably starting-up Kingfisher Airlines in 2005.

But the carrier hemorrhaged money from the start and was finally grounded in 2012, accounting for much of Mallya's debt. The bulk of the debt is unpaid bank loans but it also includes millions in unpaid bills and wages. Thousands of workers also lost their jobs.

Congress Party co-leader Rahul Gandhi also slammed the government's failure to detain Mallya, accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi of

a double standard in meting out the law for the wealthy and the poor.

"When a poor man steals, he is beaten up and thrown into jail," Gandhi told journalists outside of parliament. "A big businessmen who steals (90 billion rupee) from country, you allow him to escape in First Class.

"The question (for Modi) is why did your government allow him to run away from the country," Gandhi said.

Dubbed "India's Richard Branson," Mallya also acquired a Formula One team - currently called Sahara Force India - ready for the 2008 season. His fortune peaked at $1.6 billion in 2007, according to Forbes.

Mallya was given a $40 million partial severance payment after stepping down last month as chairman of United Spirits, the Indian arm of Britain's Diageo, following allegations of financial lapses.

bik/jil (AFP, Reuters, PTI)

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