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'Gandhi would not have approved of this circus'

March 09, 2009 12:59 IST

UB Group Chairman Vijay Mallya made international headlines last Thursday when he bought Mahatma Gandhi's memorabilia for a whopping $1.8 million from an auction in New York. The New York Times featured the liquor baron on its front page after he managed to secure the seven personal items that once belonged to Gandhi.

Mallya, who has announced that he plans to hand over the items to the Indian government, might have a long wait ahead of him. The US Justice Department has decided to probe the legality of the sale of the Gandhi memorabilia.

The items, including a pair of sandals and Gandhi's famous spectacles, were sold by California-based peace activist James Otis, who reportedly bought them from a German art collector.

Mallya's victory dashed the hopes of fellow bidder and former cricketer Dilip Doshi, The Times has revealed.

The auction, which was held at the office of Antiquorum on New York's Madison Avenue, drew over a dozen TV reporters and seasoned journalists from across the world. Newspapers from various countries, including China and Mexico, featured the auction.

The Times story also unraveled the secret of the 'mystery bidder'.

Just before Tony Bedi, who runs Mallya's American businesses based in California, clinched the deal with a $1.8 million bid, an American had gone up to $1.7 million. Some of the bidders thought the mystery bidder was an antique dealer.

"I was afraid that he may end up with the items and India may not see them at all," said Dev Sharma, the owner of the famed 'Amma' restaurant in New York, who attended the bidding with his wife and business partner Anu Sharma. They stopped bidding at the half a million mark.

The NYT revealed that the mystery bidder was bidding on behalf of Dilip Doshi.

Unaware about Doshi's participation, media persons focused their attention on hotelier Sant Singh Chatwal, who was expected to bid for the items but refrained from doing so after having a chat with Mallya.

"It did not matter to me whether I was the bidder or Vijay was doing the bidding," Chatwal said hours after the auction, echoing what he had told Rediff India Abroad earlier. "Both of us wanted the same thing --- the items belong to the Indian people."

While American newspapers had the time to research Mallya's background, TV journalists had to ask their Indian counterparts for help, to cull more details about the tycoon.

One journalist pointed out the irony of Mallya, who had amassed his fortunes from breweries and Kingfisher, the airline named after his best-known beer brand, buying Gandhi's items. He asked an Indian journalist what Gandhi would have though of such a transaction.

"Your guess is as good as mine," replied the Indian journalist. "I don't think Gandhi would have approved of this kind of a circus. He might not even be allowed into this building with his sandals and bare minimum clothes."

The irony was manifested in the many colourful headlines used by newspapers to describe the auction. Distillery owner saves Gandhi belongings for India, stated The Scotsman.

"The flamboyant Indian tycoon who owns the Whyte & Mackay distillery has many reasons to be cheerful," the story began. "Vijay Mallya, the billionaire owner of Kingfisher Airlines known as the Bangalore Branson, has just become the saviour of some of his country's most treasured possessions," it added.

The Scotsman was not the only British publication to play up Mallya's liquor business. The Telegraph in London declared in its headline: Alcohol tycoon donates Gandhi's £1.3m spectacles to the nation.

It added, "With a business empire built on alcohol and a reputation for being the 'King of Good Times', Vijay Mallya's life couldn't be further removed from that of Mahatma Gandhi."

The Telegraph reminded its readers that Mallya had successfully bid for the sword of Tipu Sultan five years ago at an auction in London and taken it back to India.

It added that in response to Gandhi's famous contention 'Alcohol is not the answer to life's question', Mallya had stated 'At least it helps you forget the question'

A day before the auction, there were speculations that the bid could reach $3 million.

While Chatwal thought the items were not worth even half that amount, Mallya's assistant Bedi felt that the items were worth as much as $6 million.  

Arthur J Pais in New York