Union Minister Nitin Gadkari on Thursday suggested that it is unfair to tag a "one-time loan defaulter Vijay Mallyaji" as a "chor" (thief), adding that the embattled businessman has a four-decade-long track record of timely debt servicing.
Mr Gadkari, however, clarified that he has no business dealing with Vijay Mallya, who faces extradition from the UK for alleged bank fraud and money laundering amounting to an estimated Rs 9,000 crore.
"40 saal Mallya regular payment kar raha tha, byaaj bhar raha tha. 40 saal baad jab wo aviation mein gaya....uske baad wo adchan mein aaya to woh ekdum chor ho gaya?...jo pachaas saal byaaj bharta hai wo theek hai, par ek baar wo default ho gaya...toh turant sab fraud ho gaya? Ye mansikta theek nahi hai."
(For 40 years Mallya was regularly paying interest on loans. After entering the aviation sector, he started facing problems, and suddenly he became a thief? If a person repays the interest for 50 years, and if he defaults once, then suddenly everything is fraud? This mindset is not correct), Mr Gadkari said at an economic summit organised by the Times Group.
Mr Gadkari said the loan he was referring to was from the Maharashtra government-owned entity Sicom to Vijay Mallya, extended 40 years ago, which he repaid on time without any default.
Stating that ups and downs are part and parcel of any business, the road transport minister said if someone goes through a downward cycle, then he or she has to be supported.
"There are risks in the business, be it banking or insurance, there are ups and downs. But, if the mistakes are bona fide, because of global or internal factors in the economy like a recession, then that person who is facing difficulties must be given support," the minister said.
Likening an election loss to a business failure, he recalled how he lost an election when he was all of 26, but underlined that the loss did not mean that his political career ended.
"If Nirav Modi or Vijay Mallyaji has committed (financial) fraud then send them to jail, but whoever comes in distress, and if we label them as fraudster then our economy will not progress," he said.
Earlier this week, a London court had ordered Vijay Mallya's extradition, in a major boost to the government's efforts to bring back the fugitive businessman.
Ahead of the extradition hearing, the 62-year-old former boss of the now-defunct Kingfisher Airlines offered to repay the entire principal amount to banks.
Mr Gadkari has for long been calling for a more considerate and realistic approach to NPAs, and indirectly blamed the bankers for the NPA mess, saying our banking system is such that it does not support sick companies.
"When someone is serious then we put him/her in an ICU, but our banking system first puts a sick company in the ICU and then ensures that it dies," he said.
Last month, Mr Gadkari had blamed the RBI for "complicating" project finance, saying over 150 projects involving over Rs 2 trillion investments are struggling to get financial closure.
"Unfortunately, many times ...the circulars issued by the RBI are creating more complications and this is one of the reasons why I am facing problems as far as financial closure is concerned," Mr Gadkari had said.