I think the producers of the Netflix series Bad Boy Billionaires wanted to play it safe. How else can you explain the absence of political context that created and nurtured these billionaires?
Billionaires with Shades of Black, White and Grey
The stories of Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi and Subrata Roy - captured in the recently released episodes of Bad Boy Billionaires on Netflix will be incomplete without highlighting the cozy relationships they had with politicians of all persuasions.
They are accused of exploiting the gaps in the regulatory framework. They, it looks like, played around the spirit of law and took advantage of certain officials’ propensity to circumvent rules in lieu of illegal gratification. Could they have got away with all these without political connections? Vijay Mallya was an active politician himself, having served two terms in the Rajya Sabha. The series is silent on this aspect. The silence is a major omission in the whole narrative.
The Three Billionaires thrived because of their Political Connections
The three billionaires featured here can be said to be the product of a system called crony capitalism. They came across as the favourite ones and therefore seemingly had the license to milk the system. I could sense one more gap in the narrative - the portrayal of these business personalities without so much explaining the context they operated in.
The story of Kingfisher Airlines will be incomplete without talking about the rapidly rising ATF prices around the early years of its operation, crumbling aviation infrastructure then and also the great recession of 2008. A combination of these factors and also Mallya’s seemingly irrational expansion plans proved to be the airlines’ undoing. And with that Mallya’s impressive business empire built around the flourishing liquor business came crashing down.
The episode on Vijay Mallya talks about the rise and fall of Kingfisher Airlines without talking about the external environment prevailing then. What we get is a narration of most of the known facts, with a sprinkle of some lesser known facts.
Sahara’s growth trajectory would have been totally different if Subrata Roy’s real estate bet had begun to take shape. Similarly, Nirav Modi’s insistence on creating a ‘made in India’ luxury brand would have proved to be a worthwhile business goal to pursue. With the benefit of hindsight, we can say that they seemed to have erred in their adoption of short-cuts.
The strength of the series lies in the portrayal of the three billionaires in all their dimensions. There are shades of black, white and grey in whatever they did. There is no denying that they adopted short-cuts that proved to be their undoing. But they all are blessed with very sharp business minds who sensed opportunities before others.
They had Wealth and Flaunted it Too
All the three billionaires had one thing in common- they never shied away from flaunting their image of being kings of good times. The ceremony accompanying the marriage of Subrata Roy’s sons was as lavish as it could get. And Mallya’s bash on his 60th birthday did not go down well as Kingfisher Airlines’ staff went without salary for months around the same time.
Their propensity to spend their way out of any situation perhaps stemmed from the fact that all three seemed to have access to liquidity taps that kept throwing tons of rupees. While Nirav’s companies could access funds from a particular branch of Punjab National Bank without any collateral for six long years, Sahara had mastered the art of raising money from crores of unsuspecting and innocent small investors/savers. Vijay Mallya too could access funds from public sector banks almost at will.
The Billionaires Milked the System
The question that keeps coming while going through the episodes on Bad Boy Billionaires is: Why is our regulatory framework so lax? Why do regulators take notice of a wrongdoing when it is too late? How could Nirav Modi raise loans from a particular branch of PNB for more than 6 years without any collateral? It would have gone on for many more years if the employee handling the account wouldn’t have retired and another employee replaced him.
The three episodes do not offer fresh insights. Interesting information capsules presented here help us connect the dots. Mallya won a racing championship in the early years of 1980s. Is that the reason why he loved racing and owned a Formula One racing team? The episode on Mallya also sheds light on the making of formidable Kingfisher brand and how Mallya did it against all odds.
We also get to know as to how Sahara earned the goodwill of millions of people by offering banking services to those who did not have access to the formal banking system. The goodwill thus earned in his formative years kept getting dividend for years to come.
What is very clear from the stories of the three billionaires is that a system that favours some business houses but is unfair to most others almost always crumbles and harms all stakeholders.
Isn’t that a lesson as much relevant today as it was years ago?
(The author is an occasional writer and an aspiring entrepreneur. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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