Succession rides on Ponty's mother

Lucknow, Nov. 18: The spectre of a succession war looms over slain liquor baron Ponty Chadha's family if his mother's unity efforts fail, and the threat it could pose to their business empire seems to be turning shareholders panicky.

The fresh battle is likely to be fought on the same lines as the bitter business and property disputes that led to yesterday's farmhouse shootout which killed Ponty, 55, and his youngest brother Hardeep, 49, sources close to the Chadhas said.

On one side, apparently, is Ponty's son Manpreet aka Monty, 28, and his sole surviving uncle Rajinder, 53, who had always backed Ponty in his fights with Hardeep.

On the other side are Hardeep's wife and her family who are related to Akali leader and president of the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee, Paramjit Singh Sarna. Hardeep's daughter and two sons are still students; and Ponty's two daughters are both married.

Thickening the plot could be the political connections of the two slain brothers.

Ponty enjoyed support at the very top in the ruling Samajwadi Party and Opposition Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh, the principal theatre of his operations, and in the Punjab Congress too.

Hardeep, who looked after group company Wave Inc's Punjab businesses ' mainly sugar and paper mills ' had strong links within the state's ruling Akali Dal. Both brothers were yesterday accompanied by Punjab police escorts.

Talks about a succession battle beginning after the mourning period has prompted many of the investors in Wave Inc's real estate projects to make panic calls to company executives, sources said.

A minister in the Akhilesh Yadav government, who is close to the Chadhas, said Manpreet was set to emerge as the successor with Rajinder's support. Ponty was allegedly promoting Manpreet, taking him along to every deal negotiation, which made Hardeep nervous, sources said.

"I saw Manpreet once with his father," the minister said. "He seemed a smart and cool-headed young man and was apparently learning the ropes from his father."

Manpreet is said to have been the brain behind a chain of nightclubs where many of Uttar Pradesh's political scions were often caught shaking a leg. He seems to have had a role in the group's diversification into Bollywood film production and distribution as well as multiplexes.

The family dispute began in April last year following the death of patriarch Kulwant, which left eldest son Ponty at the head of a business empire estimated to be worth Rs 12,000 crore to Rs 20,000 crore.

Family lawyer Gaurang Kanth said Hardeep wanted the businesses carved up so he could work independently, but the other two brothers resisted. Ambitious and a go-getter, Hardeep was doing well in Punjab and was often seen in a Rolls-Royce, a friend said.

Sources said Ponty's mother Prakash Kaur had negotiated a temporary settlement in the presence of the head priest of a Delhi gurdwara ' apparently in keeping with the wishes of Hardeep's in-laws ' leaving the youngest son in sole charge of the group's Punjab operations. Ponty and Rajinder apparently resented this.

Sources suggested the sibling rivalry was behind the headline-grabbing income tax raids on Ponty's premises across Uttar Pradesh and the National Capital Region in February. Apparently, someone had tipped the tax authorities off.

But Ponty too seemed to have received a timely counter tip-off, for the raid yielded a mere Rs 11.61 crore ' peanuts by his standards.

If the succession battle splits the business empire, sources said, the first casualty could be the Chadhas' iron grip on the liquor market in Uttar Pradesh, worth at least Rs 500 crore a year.

Ponty controlled the sale of every bottle and pouch in the state, where he had sole distribution rights. Six rival distributors who have teamed up under a syndicate may now try to assert themselves.

A source in the Uttar Pradesh Distillers Association said the Chadha empire might disintegrate unless the family retains the proximity to the state's political bosses that Ponty had forged.

Manpreet and Rajinder face their biggest test in March, when the contract for the wholesale and retail liquor businesses will have to be renewed.