Force India's Vijay Mallya faces hostile reception at Indian GP over airline row
Vijay Mallya, the Force India co-owner, insisted yesterday that it would once again be a proud moment seeing his cars racing in the colors of the national flag at Sunday’s Indian Grand Prix.
But the billionaire entrepreneur is likely to face an uncomfortable few days at his home race as he tries to stave off threats of protests by staff of his struggling Kingfisher Airlines.
Kingfisher’s fleet, controlled by Mallya – the 56 year-old self-styled “king of good times” – has been grounded since the start of the month when a staff protest turned violent. Two weeks ago an arrest warrant was issued against him by a Hyderabad court, since withdrawn, for bounced checks totaling $2 million, while the airline’s license was suspended last Saturday.
Kingfisher executives met earlier this week for crisis talks with disgruntled employees in an effort to thrash out a deal over the seven months of pay they are owed.
The airline reportedly offered to pay three months of salary arrears to employees by the Indian festival of Diwali on Nov 13, but it was unclear whether that would pacify them. India’s civil aviation minister Ajit Singh said yesterday he feared it would be “very difficult” for Kingfisher to survive in the present economic climate, with debts of more than £1 billion.
Mallya is desperately seeking a foreign buyer but tensions are running high. Earlier this month the wife of a Kingfisher employee committed suicide, leaving behind a note that said the family were in deep financial distress as her husband had not been paid for six months.
The Hindustan Times newspaper reported this week that other unpaid staff intended to confront Mallya at the Buddh International circuit outside Delhi before the race.
“We have planned to stage a dharna [sit-in protest] when Mr. Vijay Mallya comes at the grand prix,” a Kingfisher engineer said. “A protest at the sporting event will highlight our plight to the entire world.”
An air hostess added: “What is the option left before us but to protest? All of us are in deep financial crisis, but [Mallya] is unperturbed. [He is] mocking at our misery with his lifestyle.”
Mallya, who inherited the United Breweries conglomerate from his father, is one of India’s most prominent and colorful entrepreneurs and politicians. In addition to being co-owner of Silverstone-based Force India, he is the chairman of the Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India (FMSCI) and sits on the FIA World Motor Sport Council.
He claimed yesterday that he was looking forward to the second Indian Grand Prix. “I remember how proud I felt last year to see our cars racing in India in the colors of the Indian flag,” Mallya said in a statement which made no mention of Kingfisher’s ongoing tribulations.
“It was a moment I had dreamed about and a great sporting achievement for our country. To score points was the icing on the cake.
"This year I would like to go one better and see both our cars in the points – at the very least – so that we can give our fans something to smile about. The gap to Sauber is now 27 points. It’s a big lead, but not impossible to catch them before the end of the year.” The Telegraph