To be fair, in this case it’s not the concept that’s causing heartburn so much as the timing: ought Mallya to have boasted about his fine dining experiences when his airline hasn’t paid staff salaries?
Let’s face it, when Mallya embarked on his epic journey of conspicuous consumption, he was something of a role model and a pioneer.
In a country where the rich and famous masked their vodkas in fruit juice and wore the fig leaf of piety to cover their lasciviousness, here was a man who had discovered a new way of having fun and making money: brand ambassadorship on a monumental scale.
Every thing Mallya did was grist to his trade. Want to buy a luxury cruiser? Sure, name it after one of your products and write it off as a marketing tool. Ditto the sports cars, the luxury homes, the private jets, the parties, the cricket teams and the racing franchise.
In many circles, Mallya was considered a genius because his larger than life “King of Good Times” persona ensured that his beer and spirits conglomerate was highly successful.
This is not a moral judgment on Mallya. In many ways this columnist admired him not only for his imagination but his honesty (though let us reserve judgment on some of his more exuberant sartorial adventures — clunky gold jewellery? Red shorts? Rocks in both ears? Eek!). Here was someone who, in the country of Gandhi and godmen, had decided to eschew sackcloth and ashes and have a jolly good time, and too bad for those who didn’t approve.
What we are asking is: can it ever work in India? Is there a place for conspicuous consumption in public affairs — even as a business tool?
The man on the street’s response to Mukesh Ambani’s Antilia, the outrage against Bollywood stars in fast cars, Imran Khan’s erstwhile playboy image that could come in the way of his political ambitions in Pakistan, the dice loaded against the Talwars in the Aarushi murder case, the way the press fixated on Hina Khar’s Birkin when she visited India, and of course the way in which luxury and white goods are taxed in each budget — are we really a mature enough economy to deal with conspicuous consumption?
Or is our unease with the subject hardwired into our DNA? Did the patriarchs of our business world, who built temples and schools with their disposable income, know something that seems to have eluded the newer lot of businessmen? Is that why they live in mansions protected by high walls, hidden from the prying eyes of the aam janta and pursue their more material urges abroad? Is this also the reason why the flashy new-age showrooms for luxury goods inevitably appear to fail if they are in your face and in full public view?
It will take far more than one column’s worth of rumination to measure India’s preparedness for conspicuous consumption; germane to this is the fact that we have a huge population under 20 growing up without the baggage of the past. We began by asking if Mallya will still be regarded as a role model for young businessmen. The jury’s still out on that one, it appears.
Malavika Sangghvi is a Mumbai-based writer firstname.lastname@example.org
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