Gandhi ji advocated Prohibition, but we needed a liquor Baron to bring back his things to India! JAI HO for the craziest place on earth – says a text message doing the rounds in Delhi this morning.
What a lovely diversion it’s been for Vijay Mallya, chairman of the ailing UB liquor group and Kingfisher Airlines, to be able to buy Mahatma Gandhi’s memorabilia for a vastly inflated $1.8m in a New York auction yesterday, instead of worrying about from the miseries of his businesses.
UB group and Kingfisher are so broke that Mallya is considering selling stakes of 15% upwards to international liquor companies such as Diageo – who presumably would not agree to have less than 26% because they would want to have some control under India’s company law. Mallya is also trying to persuade the Indian government to allow foreign airlines to invest in Indian carriers so he can sell 26% of Kingfisher abroad
These sales really would be parting with the family silver! Should someone organise an auction to save UB and Kingfisher for India?
Mint newspaper dealt with the Mallya purchase rather neatly in a front page editorial this morning:
“There is rich irony in the fact that a liquor baron, who is described as the king of good times, has bought the sandals, glasses and other personal belongings of Mahatma Gandhi, a frugal and abstemious soul.
“Vijay Mallya paid $1.8 million (Rs9.27 crore) for Mahatma memorabilia—and has been swamped by affectionate praise from ordinary Indians. What Mallya does with his money is really nobody’s business, but we cannot but help wonder whether he overpaid for no fault of his.
”India’s cultural affairs minister Ambika Soni said she had been instructed by prime minister Manmohan Singh to do ‘whatever possible’ to ensure that the Gandhi items were brought back to India. There was enough national debate to tell the outside world that India was desperate to win the bid.
“Was that sensible strategy? The reserve price of the items was $20,000-30,000, far less than the final sale price. You do not need a game theorist to know that India sent the wrong signals and helped push up the final price. A collective poker face would have helped.”
The Indian Express says in an editorial headed Buying and selling eyeglasses sans perspective:
“The auction of Gandhi-related memorabilia in New York brought out the most delightfully hubristic side of everyone concerned………..the Indian government seems to have decided that anything that Bapu ever touched was the Patrimony of the Nation, and having it in the possession of icky, capitalistic foreigners (imagine, selling a used pair of glasses for a profit!) would mean trampling, unacceptably, on Indian sovereignty. Then there is the Delhi High Court, which, given the universality of Justice, issued a stay order on the auction of things physically outside India by an auction house outside India on behalf of a seller outside India……..
“And how did all this end? In properly Indian manner, with competitive chaos: Tushar Gandhi using Dilip Doshi to bid against Vijay Mallya, who may or may not have been the state’s representative. If anyone thinks that the spectacle of a liquor baron bidding for the used crockery of a man who was not the world’s biggest alcohol fan was blasphemous, they’re clearly moralistic killjoys that don’t understand Gandhism.
“What more agreeable spectacle than Vijay Mallya, the buyer of Tipu’s sword, now buying slightly less violent relics? (And wasn’t he complaining the other day Kingfisher had no money?) Or than the government, which first disdained then took credit for Slumdog, now trying to take credit for another Indian Victory Abroad?”
Is what the Express calls Indian hubris going to lead to frenetic campaigns to save every piece of Gandhi memorabilia? And would it have happened if it hadn’t coincided with the coming general election, thus making such hubris almost a political necessity for the government?
As Sam Miller, a BBC journalist, points out in his excellent new book on Delhi, Adventures in a Megacity , there are already two Gandhi watches in different Delhi museums, both assumed to be the one he wore when he was killed. Looks like an expanding market.