Posted by: John Elliott | March 7, 2009

Mallya saves Gandhi memorabilia for India but seeks buyer for his family silver

 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.

the auction items

the auction items

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?

Vijay Mallya

Vijay Mallya

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.


  1. I’m not sure what the point being made by people who point out the irony that a liquor baron bought the posthumous goods of a founding father and teetotaller.

    Is it ironic, yes, does it mean anything, absolutely not. We don’t try reconcile the personal beliefs of famous painters with the current owners of their woks, that would be absolutely ridiculous.

    The India intelletarti has nothing better than to do than suggest that there is something morally suspect with the sale. I have to agree whole heartedly with the Indian Express.

    If anything Ghandiji did not believe in personal possessions, whilst he was living, if we had the ability to tell him that what little he did use regularly would be auctioned and sold for multimillion dollar sums. I rather suspect he would look at the items, probably had a good laugh to begin with and then said anyone who spent that kind of money would have to be mad, regardless of where they got the money to pay such huge sums.

    This was a private sale and someone bought the goods, under no circumstance unless the items themselves were being used for negative purposes, or the buyer was some kind of criminal, does anyone have the right to judge either the buyer or how he made his money. That is an outrage.

    Mr. Mallaya has made his money legitimately, and to be quite honest, with as much respect as can possibly be offered for Ghandiji as a founding father of the country of India and leading the light of non-violence. If we had listened and taken at face value every position he had on every social, moral and economic issue, then this country would probably be 20 years behind where it is now. As it is we are probably at least 10-15 years behind where we should be simply because we allowed Mr. Nehru to run the country immediately after independence.

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