Vendor to booze baron, on back of patrons

Radhika Ramaseshan and Tapas Chakraborty

Nov. 17: Till he was nearly 40, Ponty Chadha was a physically challenged street vendor, selling snacks from a trolley with father Kulwant in front of a country liquor shop in Moradabad, western Uttar Pradesh.

A decade and a half later, Ponty and his two brothers were running an estimated Rs 12,000-crore business empire of distilleries, malls, multiplexes, real estate, hotels, bars, sugar and paper mills, poultry and movies.

Industry sources say it all became possible because of Ponty's knack for making friends among powerful politicians across the spectrum, exemplified by his closeness to both Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav.

Ponty recounted in a recent interview how his family had lost hope in him after an electric shock he suffered as a boy left one of his arms paralysed and the other partially inactive. Now, he said, his family thought that "the empire I have built would last through several generations".

This is how the Chadhas climbed the business ladder:

Amarinder aid

By 1995, the family had saved enough to buy the liquor shop at hometown Moradabad in front of which Ponty sold snacks. As the business grew, Ponty began cultivating the association of politicians.

In 2002, he gained his first big political patron in Punjab's then Congress chief minister Amarinder Singh. For the next five years until the Akalis came to power, the Chadhas monopolised Punjab's liquor trade by bagging the sole liquor distribution rights in the state.

Mulayam's man

Ponty turned towards Uttar Pradesh in 2003 after Mulayam became chief minister. Friends and associates said that after a few meetings, Mulayam, with his keen eye for potential fund-raisers, was convinced that it was worth investing in Ponty.

The Chadhas took control of more than half the liquor outlets in the state. Surprisingly, they also bagged a Rs 3,000-crore contract to supply grains for the state government's Integrated Child Development Scheme, and entered the real estate and multiplex businesses, acquiring prime land in Lucknow and Noida.

Maya and Dalits

Ponty's biggest coup, perhaps, was winning over Mulayam's arch-foe Mayawati as soon as she came to power in 2007. Quick to sense which way the wind was blowing, Ponty had begun cosying up to the Bahujan Samaj Party chief shortly before the Samajwadi Party government was voted out.

He pulled it off by helping one of Mayawati's pet projects of Dalit empowerment.

The liquor vends in western Uttar Pradesh were at that time in the grip of the upper castes and the Other Backward Classes. The Dalits and the most backward castes (MBCs) eked out a living as farm hands or construction workers, breaking stones and carrying them to distant places on their heads.

Mayawati ordered Ponty to sub-contract the liquor vends to her electoral constituents in the villages and towns, and he did it over the protests of the upper castes and the OBCs.

The Dalits and MBCs say that if Mayawati guaranteed them the opportunity to vote without fear and coercion, Ponty "liberated" them. The sub-lease on the liquor vends allowed them to earn decent money, opening up a passageway to education, better jobs and social respectability.

'Ponty tax'

In 2009, Mayawati gave Ponty the sole liquor distribution rights across India's most populous state, allowing him to monopolise a huge market ' selling brands from Blender's Pride and Signature to the poor man's pouches, tantalisingly named Rangeeli, Maikhana and Nasheeli Jawani.

"Ponty Chadha had the final word on the type or volume of liquor that companies other than his would supply to the retail outlets. He even dictated the prices," a liquor trader in Lucknow said.

In 2010, Ponty stopped the state's liquor shops from selling any Indian rum other than a brand launched by one of his distilleries that year.

Business rules and norms were insouciantly flouted. Ponty levied an extra Rs 15 to Rs 25 on every bottle or pouch ' it was called "Ponty tax". Mayawati made sure the private tax was returned to her in political kind.

Ponty became synonymous with liquor ' so much so that sozzled guests in Uttar Pradesh's raucous parties were told: "Arre, tum pe to Ponty chad gaya hai (you are high on Ponty)."

Sugar '' spice

The Chadha Group, which later became Wave Inc with Ponty as chief managing director and chairman, launched real estate projects in Noida, Greater Noida, Agra, Meerut, Bareilly, Moradabad and Lucknow since 2008-09. The group has built the 152-acre city centre in Noida.

Ponty's last big bang endeavour was floating the Wave Infratech mixed-use project in Noida. Sprawled over 40 million square feet, it has been billed as India's largest realty project.

PTI said Ponty produced the film Jo Bole So Nihaal and distributed movies such as Kahaani, Murder 2 and No Entry in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. The group runs a bottling plant for an international soft drinks company besides three distilleries in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh.

It has also branched out into sports, winning the Delhi franchise of the Hockey India League.

In 2010, when Mayawati sold loss-making state sugar mills, Ponty got three of them on a long lease in a deal that prompted Opposition allegations of a Rs 124.70-crore loss to the exchequer.

The Samajwadis made it a poll plank. When Akhilesh Yadav became chief minister, many competitors thought gleefully that Ponty had finally run out of luck.

Akhilesh too

Ponty's critics were, however, shocked when they saw Ponty's son get off a plane along with a Mumbai industrialist to attend Akhilesh's swearing in. A state government official said that given the venue was sealed and sanitised, Ponty's son couldn't have turned up uninvited and that too in a private aircraft.

The Ponty-Samajwadi connection was re-established when the Akhilesh government renewed the three-year contract ' now worth Rs 10,000 crore ' to supply food and nutrients for the state's Integrated Child Development Scheme.

The Samajwadi poll manifesto had promised a probe into the sugar mill controversy but Akhilesh refused to order one.

Uttar Pradesh remained Ponty's principal foraging ground though he branched out to Haryana, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand ' with "friends" in every party.