Reading Comprehension 046


Vijay Mallya, chairman of the UB Group, India's largest liquor conglomerate, is getting a touchup. The businessman and flamboyant socialite—whose toys include racehorses, sports cars and soccer teams—lounges beside the swimming pool of his seaside mansion in Goa while a makeup artist brushes dye into his beard. The hues perfectly match the copper tints already gleaming in Mallya's hair. Rifle-toting security guards keep watch while his wonder-struck guests sip beer and wander about the pleasure dome's grounds.

His new highlights suitably dry, Mall-ya—known inside his palace as "Boss"—makes for the pool. Wearing red-tinted sunglasses, diamond studs and thick gold bracelets, he wades into the cool turquoise water, lights up a cigarillo and bellows out a limerick that begins, "There once was young man from Madras, whose balls were made of brass ..."

After a sumptuous lunch served by uniformed waiters, the Boss heads for the Goa airport, where his private Boeing 727 is prepped for take-off. Is the destination Monaco, Gstaad or any number of other international playgrounds befitting the 47-year-old glamour boy of Indian business? Hardly. Vijay Mallya is hitting the campaign trail.

Already a member of India's upper house of Parliament, he's also a new and improbable leader of the Janata Party, a socialist outfit famous for its commitment to farmers and the downtrodden. Mallya is campaigning hard to establish himself as a political force in his home state of Karnataka. He's already spent time and money stumping for candidates from an affiliated party in a recent election for the state assembly, and he says he plans to field candidates of his own in future elections. Emulating his heroes—American tycoon-turned-politician Ross Perot and Italian media magnate-turned-Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi—Mallya is pushing hard to break down the barrier traditionally separating business from politics in his country. "This is the first time a major businessman has officially entered politics in India," says P.S. Jayaramu, a professor of political science at Bangalore University. For many, Mallya could be the welcome harbinger of a new kind of reformer ready to storm Indian politics with private wealth and a pledge to clean up a corrupt system. For many others, though, his campaign is remarkable for one reason only: comic relief.

A little more than 24 hours after his Goan pool party, Mallya takes the podium before a crowd in Kolar, a poor, drought-ravaged region of Karnataka. He's exchanged the heavy diamond studs for simple gold earrings and is decked out in the chaste all-white kurta and pajama of a typical Indian politician. "God has given me everything," Mallya tells the audience. "Money, big houses, fame. I want nothing more—except the chance to serve you." The crowd listens politely and begins to drift away—until the techno music starts to pound. A green laser beam projects images on a giant screen: first a map of India, then objects of desire, such as washing machines and pickup trucks. Dry-ice vapors envelop the stage. Engines rev. And a 25-car entourage whisks Mallya away, leaving behind a bewildered, speechless but thoroughly entertained crowd.

Although Mallya may be new to politics, he's not new to the spotlight. Long one of India's most prominent businessmen, he has turned United Breweries, the company he inherited from his father, into India's dominant brewer. By aggressively acquiring smaller brands, UB now controls a 40% share of the domestic beer market, and Mallya has transformed the group's flagship brew, Kingfisher, into a label that's known from England to Australia. But with $1.2 billion in annual sales, the UB Group is more than just beer and Bagpiper, India's best-selling whisky. It also has hefty investments in real estate, media, pharmaceuticals, even fertilizer factories.

All this has made Mallya one of India's richest men (although he's uncharacteristically shy when it comes to discussing how much he's worth). It's a wealth that he's spent liberally, building mansions throughout the country, throwing lavish parties, buying India's most successful football teams—East Bengal and Mohun Bagan—and breeding famous racehorses.

In 2000, however, Mallya astonished everyone by deciding to enter politics. Although big business has always been a crucial source of campaign funds, politicians have traditionally maintained an air of Gandhian poverty, dressing in hand-spun clothes and driving battered domestic Ambassador automobiles. Mallya, by contrast, openly celebrates his wealth, and with his wife and two daughters in America and a son at school in England, his connection to India sometimes seems tenuous. Nonetheless, Mallya ran for an indirect election (in which votes are cast only by members of state legislatures) to India's largely ceremonial upper house of Parliament in 2000. And although he lost his first time around, in 2002 he won.

"What is the difference between politics and business?" Mallya demands. Noting that U.S. President George W. Bush started off as an oil executive, Mallya argues that India's political system needs a dash of businesslike efficiency. "There's no accountability in Indian politics," he growls, pointing out that although politician after politician has promised to improve Karnataka's capital of Bangalore, traffic is congested, the electricity frequently fails and pollution is getting worse.

He certainly does not shy from spending his business wealth on his political pursuits. He says he's contributed $220,000 so far to the Janata Party, although many Indian political experts suspect the actual figure is much higher. Mallya's critics, in fact, complain that he has come this far solely because of his fortune. His 2002 election to Parliament was dogged by rumors that he bribed members of a prominent political party—rumors that he denies. Nor was that his first brush with accusations of financial impropriety. In 1999 Indian officials charged that he had violated the country's strict foreign-exchange rules when he sponsored a Benetton formula-one racing team in the mid-1990s. Those charges were dismissed in court, but they've left Mallya with the feeling that he's being persecuted by India's bureaucrats. "Being chairman of the UB Group counts for nothing in this country," Mallya complains.

But will his deep pockets be enough to win him the political power—and thus the respect—that he craves? Many doubt it. "You can't buy votes in this state," says N. Gururaj, editor of the Udayavani, an influential Kannada-language newspaper. Indeed, the politics of caste still count—and Mallya, a member of a tiny mercantile caste, has yet to win over the support of any major caste in Karnataka. Certainly, many of his views should resonate with the state's hard-hit rural masses. He notes with outrage that some of the state's farmers, charged interest rates of 60% by middlemen, have committed suicide by swallowing pesticide. Why, he asks, can't a system of credit be devised in which the middleman is eliminated? But because Mallya barely speaks the local language, young men in the back of the audience at his speeches are rarely inspired—they are too busy laughing themselves silly as they repeat the mangled phrases of his pidgin Kannada.

Sitting in his red Mercedes, Mallya lights another cigarillo and declares that people are coming to his campaigns in ever larger numbers. What they are coming for, though, is another matter. At Kolar, unemployed young men press their faces to the tinted windows of the car, gaping at the flashing lights on his stereo system, the plush seats and the attractive women who sometimes join Mallya's extensive entourage on his whistle-stops.

Bewildered by Mallya's unprecedented campaign, some members of Karnataka's political intelligentsia speculate that it's merely part of a cynical political conspiracy. One favorite theory is that he's being used by the state's unpopular chief minister, S.M. Krishna, to divide the opposition before the next elections. So far, however, the chattering classes have ignored the most obvious possibility: that politics in India, bringing the momentary adoration of millions, might provide thrills of self-gratification more intoxicating than those that even the greatest wealth can buy.



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