Blood and Billions

Fifteen months before liquor baron Gurdeep Singh 'Ponty' Chadha, 59, was killed in a bloody exchange of fire with younger brother Hardeep, he had a premonition. It was perhaps triggered by an astrologer in Delhi, who warned Ponty in August 2011 that there was a 'kaala saaya' (dark shadow) on his horoscope. He was told to give up his liquor business.

Liquor catapulted him from being a streetside snack seller in Moradabad to a powerful business tycoon who controlled 80 per cent of the liquor business in Uttar Pradesh. It also became the cause of his sudden death, and that of Hardeep, at Number 42, Central Drive in Chhattarpur, Delhi, around noon on November 17. Their mother Prakash Kaur and some family elders were planning to sit together the same day to resolve the brothers' dispute over dividing the estimated Rs 20,000-crore business empire straddling sugar mills to distilleries, public transportation to real estate.

Number 42, the three-acre farmhouse in Chhattarpur that seemed to be at the centre of it all, was only the final trigger. Fissures first erupted two years ago when patriarch Kulwant Singh Chadha was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Hardeep, aka Satnam, the youngest of his three sons, became restive. His elder brothers Ponty and Raju (Rajinder) had always been a team. When Ponty organised Raju's daughter's wedding in Istanbul this November, just before Diwali, Hardeep was conspicuous by his absence. "Constantly badgered by Hardeep, one-and-a-half-years ago Kulwant took his sons to the Rakabganj Gurdwara in Delhi and forced them to agree on an equal three-way split of the business after his demise," says a friend who was advising Hardeep on business matters. "Though Ponty agreed in deference to his dying father's wish, he wasn't happy," he adds. Ponty, after all, was the one who had expanded his father's business of two liquor vends in Moradabad to a mega corporation. "He made it the hard way," says a Punjab Congress MP, a close friend of the Chadha family for over two decades. Ponty's first venture, he says, was bridge and road construction projects on the Uttar Pradesh-Bihar border in 1992. "Few people wanted to go to an area swarming with local gangs and beset by kidnappings," the MP adds.

Equally feared and admired by his rivals, there was no way Ponty was going to allow anyone to grab what he had so painstakingly built. Even if it was his own brother. Things became downright ugly in the joint family home-another 27-acre farmhouse complex in Chhattarpur-shortly after Kulwant died in 2011. Ponty and Hardeep began vilifying each other in front of mutual friends. "Just a few months ago, I heard the younger brother complaining. He said Ponty had thrashed his children for playing in the house," says a Punjab politician who knew both the brothers. The warring siblings were days away from taking their fight to the courts when elders intervened. Harvinder and Paramjit Sarna, better known for their long-held dominance of the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee, were called in to arbitrate. They are related to the brothers. While Hardeep is Harvinder Sarna's son-in-law, Ponty's daughter is married to Paramjit Sarna's nephew in Dubai.

Says a lawyer who sat in on the mediation that began in early November, "A settlement was finally reached on Thursday (November 15) under which Ponty agreed to pay Hardeep a mutually agreed sum (versions vary from Rs 400 to Rs 1,200 crore)." By the next day, however, evidently instigated by cronies who said that he had bartered away his rights for "peanuts", Hardeep backtracked. He wanted more. An enraged Ponty decided that he would not let his brother have anything. He decided to occupy the two farmhouses (one in Bijwasan and the other, Number 42, Central Drive) that he had agreed to give Hardeep.

Ponty's Wave Inc empire straddles six states: Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. However, it was the tag of liquor baron that the portly, soft-spoken Ponty was desperately trying to shake off even as he went on an expansion spree, branching out into real estate, malls, cinema halls, film production and distribution, soft drink bottling, paper manufacturing, sugar, distilleries, hydel power and education. Raju had been handling the liquor business, as well as a few independent contracts. Ponty's next aim was to make it big in food processing. Known to be close to former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati, Ponty was well on his way towards building bridges with the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh. He had managed to get an invite for the swearing-in ceremony of Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav in Lucknow on March 15. An associate recalls how a perseverant Ponty spent eight days at the Taj Hotel in Lucknow, waiting for a personal meeting with Yadav, which finally materialised after an influential businessman intervened.

"More than clout, he sought respectability. Ponty always felt that despite having immense wealth and contacts in the right places, he was still not given the respect he deserved," says a friend. Ponty's refrain was that there are other liquor barons who have spent millions on their high-flying but failed businesses but still got away with a better image than his. Despite his Armani suits, Italian shoes and diamond-studded Rolex watches, Ponty always felt that he had failed to shake off the unrefined image of an outsider who began life on the mean streets of Moradabad.

His father Kulwant, a refugee from Rawalpindi, had started off with a bhang and ganja vend shop at Gurhatti Chowraha, Moradabad, in the early 1950s. He expanded to a wine shop at Amroha Gate by the end of the decade. It is outside this shop that Ponty, a school dropout, started his first 'independent' business venture. It comprised a rickety wooden table, a kerosene pressure stove and a large oil-filled wok to dish out Punjabi-style fish to tipplers. Of Kulwant's three sons, it was Ponty who showed acumen in business and an interest in expanding it. Kulwant noticed Ponty's networking skills with the local police and municipal authorities and encouraged him to meet senior bureaucrats, policemen and politicians. In 1972, Ponty started his first solo venture, the Apollo Hotel, which was actually a restaurant at Imperial Tiraha in Moradabad.

By early 2000, he had not only managed to expand his father's liquor retail business outside Moradabad but also got his first foothold in Punjab. In 2001, a section of the Shiromani Akali Dal supported by Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal's son-in-law and the then state excise and taxation minister Adesh Pratap Kairon actively patronised Ponty in an attempt to shatter the then all-powerful Garcha Group's monopoly in Ludhiana. This was to undercut the influence of their patron, Badal's son Sukhbir, who Kairon did not get along with. This first foray was however not successful, and Ponty withdrew only to make a reappearance in 2003 when he succeeded in gaining control of Punjab's lucrative liquor trade. His critics said that the auctions were manipulated to favour Ponty. He got a majority of the liquor vends and then began dictating terms including the price he would buy from manufacturers. He is said to have come close to then Congress chief minister Amarinder Singh through a legislator with large-scale agrarian interests in western Uttar Pradesh and a senior IAS officer with connections in Uttarakhand. Ponty's liquor monopoly in Punjab was built by muscle power and a 'friendly' administration.

This was a far cry from those early days when the tycoon had to fend for himself. But even then he hated losing. A friend recalls that Ponty was fond of flying kites as a child and hated it when some other enthusiast would bring his kite down. So he wound a thin metallic wire around the thread so that his kite, which used to be bigger than normal kites, could not be cut off. His kite got entangled in a live electric wire once and Ponty lost most of his left forearm and two fingers of the other hand from a high voltage shock. But he never let his handicap come in the way. He manouevred his first vehicle, a Luna moped, through Moradabad's narrow lanes with ease.

The man liked to create myths around his accident. Though he mostly went with the kite story, one slightly inebriated version he would often relate was about a ferocious sword fight outside his father's liquor shop. He would effortlessly raise a heavy crystal tumbler to salute friends who happened to be around in time for an evening scotch. His friends say Ponty went through years of dedicated physiotherapy until his missing forearm and fingers stopped being a disability. "He could hold a pen and sign his name if he had to and the drink in the evening was never a problem. But is it not ironic that a man who was never able to hold a gun in his life went down in a gunfight?, says a former Congress MP who remained a close friend.

His handicap made him more determined to succeed. The driveway of his 27-acre farmhouse at 21, Central Drive in Chhattarpur boasted of an array of expensive vehicles including Bentleys, Ferraris and Mercedes. "He had a passion for cars. It was almost as if he wanted to wipe out the Luna days from his memory," says the friend. "A soft-spoken man who was never impolite but knew exactly how to tick off someone who was becoming a pest," is how a regular visitor to the sprawling Chadha homestead describes Ponty. He compared the lobby of his farmhouse to that of a seven-star hotel. "It is probably even more luxurious. Have you ever seen onyx floors spread across thousands of square feet?"

All of Ponty's friends-politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen-universally acknowledge his uncommon generosity. His home was a must-stop for many politicians and bureaucrats visiting Delhi from Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Uttar Pradesh. Ponty did not deal in imported liquor but offered a range of finest single malt whiskeys and wines to his guests. To the more formal acquaintances, it was a choice of finest teas from Ceylon to Darjeeling and Huntley & Palmers biscuits.

In the last few years of his life, Ponty had become more religious. He always carried a copy of Sukhmani Sahib-an extract from the Guru Granth Sahib meant to bring happiness and well-being-in his pocket, and read from it whenever he had the time. Police found the book in the dashboard of the Land Cruiser in which Ponty had driven with his one-time bodyguard-friend and Uttarakhand Minority Commission Chairman Sukhdev Singh Namdhari to the disputed Chhattarpur farmhouse on November 17.

Lately, Ponty had taken to funding repair and reconstruction of some gurdwaras in the Capital. This increased his influence with the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee. Days before he died, he had agreed to fund restoration of some gurdwaras in Pakistan as well. "He had to approach the Ministry of External Affairs to complete the formalities. He was reluctant since he believed his image may pose a problem," says a close associate. It is ironic that a man, who lived by his own rules and did not hesitate in breaking a few, suffered from self-doubt at the thought of benevolence.

Outside the main entrance of the now desolate Chadha farmhouse in Chhattarpur, where two widows share their common grief, is a life-size statue of Hanuman wielding his mace. Ponty had it installed because he was told it would protect him from harm. In the end, nothing could save him from the enemy within.

- With Piyush Babele