PERHAPS THERE IS NO BETTER WAY to divine the significance of a regime change than to observe the reshuffling of courtiers who thrive off and influence power. For many journalists and political analysts, then, the high-profile guests entering the grounds of Lucknow’s La Martinière Boys’ College on 15 March 2012 revealed a lot about whom the new Uttar Pradesh government would smile upon, and how it would function, in the ensuing five years. Nine days earlier, the Samajwadi Party (SP) had won a majority in the state’s 16th legislative assembly elections since Independence, and the scion of the party’s ruling dynasty, Akhilesh Yadav, was preparing to be sworn in as the new chief minister. Hundreds of celebrating SP workers in red Gandhi caps danced and sang songs before a stage draped in flowers.
Sitting in a special enclosure were some of the country’s most prominent politicians, bureaucrats, police officers, film stars and industrialists. The previous day, the Times of India reported that the Yadav family had “doled out invitations to every celeb known to them”. When the billionaire mogul Anil Ambani showed up, SP supporters shepherded him to a seat next to Akhilesh’s father, the party patriarch, Mulayam Singh Yadav, who had led the state at three different points.
Ambani was also present at Mulayam’s swearing-in ceremony for his third stint as chief minister, in 2003. The following year, Mulayam supported Ambani’s successful bid for a Rajya Sabha seat, and granted him the rights to build a 3,500-megawatt power plant in Gautam Buddh Nagar district, where the Uttar Pradesh government had purchased land at cheap prices for “public purpose”. The project had been stalled by farmers demanding higher compensation for the 2,500 acres making up the site, 40 kilometres from the national capital, but Ambani and Mulayam remained close.
Another billionaire, Subrata Roy, the chairman of Sahara India Parivar, was also spotted chatting with Mulayam and shaking hands with party leaders. Roy, who rose to prominence in Uttar Pradesh, acquired vast land holdings in the state during the third period of SP rule, which lasted until 2007.
Conspicuously absent from the roster of billionaires paying their respects at La Martinière was the liquor baron and real estate tycoon Ponty Chadha. Chadha had also been close with the Yadavs and, like Roy and Ambani, enjoyed great patronage under Mulayam’s third government. But these old ties had been eclipsed by Chadha’s subsequent association with Mayawati, the charismatic Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader who ousted Mulayam in 2007.
When Mayawati came to power, almost every top bureaucrat and police officer who had ties to the Yadavs was transferred out, and businesses that blossomed under the previous regime were stifled. Many believed that Chadha’s fortunes would also take an ill turn. But he swung things in his favour. While Ambani and Roy saw various projects scuppered under Mayawati’s rule, Chadha was awarded a monopoly over distribution for the state’s Rs 14,000-crore liquor market. In addition, he was given control of 30 percent of the alcohol retailers across the state, and was allowed to purchase a number of distressed but viable state-owned sugar mills at a price below their fair-market value. He also received a Rs 10,000-crore contract for distributing food under the state’s midday meals scheme for children and pregnant women—in violation of an earlier Supreme Court order—and landed vast tracts of prime real estate just outside Delhi at a loss to the public, state Congress leaders claimed, of Rs 40,000 crore. Both Chadha and the BSP government made enormous sums from the booze trade in particular—excise tax on the 10 million cases of liquor sold every year generated roughly Rs 10,000 crore annually for Mayawati’s government—and within the state administration Chadha became known as “Mayawati’s financier”.
With the SP back in power, many believed Chadha would now suffer. After abandoning Mulayam for Mayawati, it was far from clear that Akhilesh would let him back into the SP fold. During poll stops, Akhilesh had frequently expressed his displeasure with the state’s liquor policy, which had allowed Chadha to drive up retail prices. At a public meeting in Bhimnagar, he promised the crowds that he would cut the cost of their “shaam ki dawai” (evening medicine) if voted in.
In fact, the pressure on Chadha seemed to begin in the weeks leading up to the election. In January, the Comptroller and Auditor General issued a report saying Chadha’s sugar mills had been auctioned off at a loss to the public of somewhere between Rs 1,200 crore and Rs 2,000 crore, and recommending that the case be taken up by the Enforcement Directorate. Then, on 1 February—the same day that Mayawati kicked off her re-election campaign at a huge rally in Sitapur—a group of roughly 20 officials from the Income Tax Department arrived at Noida’s Centrestage mall, which is owned by Chadha’s Wave Group. After flashing their identity cards and gaining access to the 350,000-square-foot building, the officials rushed into the basement, where they reportedly found a secret vault. At the same time, at least a hundred of their fellow officers were raiding 18 other Chadha-owned properties (including farmhouses, malls, and nightclubs) scattered across Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, and Delhi.
While the officials cut into the vault at Centrestage with a high-powered gas torch, 55-year-old Chadha—a tall, corpulent, grizzly bear of a man with close-cropped hair and beard—was having a drink with a friend at the friend’s office in South Delhi’s Defence Colony. He had been tipped off about the raid. “He was sitting in his office and we were exchanging poetry,” the friend, who runs a petroleum business, told me. “I asked him whether he was worried about the raid and he said, ‘I have seen such gimmicks long ago. I know where it’s going to end.’”
Early news reports claimed that the tax officials had recovered Rs 100 crore from the vault, along with various unspecified documents. There were rumours in the papers that the cash had been laundered by family members through various companies in Dubai, where Chadha had properties and investments. If the confiscated paperwork could prove this, it might threaten Chadha’s empire, which was valued at somewhere between $1 billion and $10 billion. And, intentionally or not, some of the blowback was bound to catch Chadha’s political patron, Mayawati, as she mobilised her party ahead of the polls.
In the end, Chadha’s equanimity seemed justified. Two weeks after the raids, newspapers reported that almost nothing was recovered from the mall. “There were only two Rs 50 notes in the vault,” an Income Tax Department official told the Economic Times. Whatever the truth, the episode was an embarrassment for the department, and Chadha emerged unscathed. The week following the raid, he held a lavish wedding for his daughter Harleen, at which senior politicians from the SP and the BSP, and from Punjab and Delhi were in attendance.
Mayawati fared less well. The BSP lost 126 of their 206 assembly seats (out of a total of 403) and, with them, the chief ministership. There was a growing sense that, as the SP swept into power, those who had prospered (perhaps illicitly) under Mayawati, including Chadha, might be swept out.
SHORTLY AFTER AKHILESH TOOK THE OATH as chief minister and left the stage at La Martinière, ecstatic SP supporters stormed the platform and set fire to the dais. Many of the most important guests retreated to a grand after-party at Sahara Shahar, Subrata Roy’s 375-acre Lucknow estate. En route to the bash, Akhilesh held a press conference at which he proclaimed, “Organised corruption as happened in the previous regime never took place in the state [before] ... UP is now celebrating democracy.” At Roy’s, senior politicians, serving bureaucrats, stars and business moguls mingled. Imported whiskey was served all night, and several party leaders passed out on white couches spread across the property’s lush lawns. They were later escorted home in white Mercedes sedans, the house transport.
At one point, a group of IAS officers gathered on the grass began chatting about the people who had vexed the Yadavs when they were out of power, those that had remembered the family and helped them win the election, and the candidates for top ministries and administrative posts. They also briefly discussed Chadha. Because of his closeness to Mayawati, the officers agreed that his ascendancy in Uttar Pradesh was coming to an end. But not all the signs pointed in this direction. It was rumoured that Chadha had, in fact, been invited to Akhilesh’s swearing in. Chadha’s son, Manpreet, who goes by “Monty”, arrived late to the inauguration, but managed to show his face. (According to some reports, Monty had flown in to Lucknow on a private jet with a “well known Mumbai industrialist”.)
The auguring of public appearances and celebrity guest lists aside, Chadha was, according to some, too big to fail. “Ponty always had a strange magnetic force that pulled him into relevant circles,” SAT Rizvi, a former IAS officer who served in Uttar Pradesh for more than two decades, told me. “His ever-rising money and muscle power made him indispensable.” Rizvi wasn’t the only one who thought so. Within the wealthy and politically connected circles in which he moved, Chadha had gained a surpassing reputation for the kind of entrepreneurial success that is born of great intimacy with power. He built the bulk of his fortune in the span of two decades by forming close relationships with north India’s ruling personalities on the promise of benefits that only liquor could bring. Booze dispensed on the campaign trail could more or less be counted on to deliver votes, and liquor sales were the easiest way to pump funds into government coffers. Across north India, excise duties on alcohol are the second largest source of state revenue (after sales tax), since most other taxes go to the centre. Illegal kickbacks from contracts in other industries might line the pockets of individual politicians, but nothing could rival booze for legitimately enriching an entire government—whether or not those funds were later siphoned off for less than official purposes.
All this gave Chadha more ballast against the shifting winds of political favouritism than many other magnates in India. Party leaders, serving legislators and bureaucrats from across the political spectrum wore expensive watches or hung their walls with paintings gifted to them by Chadha. “He even imported Scotch with his name, Ponty, inscribed on the bottles and gifted them to almost every politician, businessman, and friend in town,” Tony Jesudasan, a spokesperson for Anil Ambani, told me. Political rivals would bump into each other when they attended Chadha’s Gatsby-style farmhouse parties, to which they were sometimes flown at his expense on privately chartered planes. The former SP general secretary Amar Singh, who once wielded great influence with Mulayam, explained Chadha’s political buoyancy to me in simple terms: “He gives 70 percent of his bribes to the party in power and 30 percent to the opposition.” If you mattered and could help Chadha expand his interests, then he would throw his weight behind you—regardless of party, identity, or ideology.
Chadha’s friends in public office proved more than willing to help pay him back. By 2012, his empire had expanded into an almost absurd array of enterprises. In addition to being a liquor baron, sugar miller, real-estate giant, and food distributor, he became a paper miller, soda bottler, large-scale poultry farmer, Bollywood film producer, public transport operator, hydroelectric dam builder, mall and multiplex erector, educationist, philanthropist and African-land speculator. He also owned a professional hockey team. “Ponty always saw three 50-paisa coins in one rupee,” Mahesh Gupta, a former excise commissioner of Uttar Pradesh, told me. If in a few of his projects Chadha seemed to turn a profit only after assuming significant risks and benefitting the economy at large, many of his ventures got going through contracts effected by the state on ludicrously favourable terms.
That it was Chadha who eventually leveraged these advantages to obtain outrageous wealth might have come as a surprise. He was a college dropout contending with two brothers and a host of cousins for space in a family business that was itself subject to violent external competition. He was also an amputee—a childhood accident deprived him of his left arm below the elbow and left him with two partial fingers and part of a thumb on his right hand—who had to hold his own in the physically aggressive culture of Moradabad, western Uttar Pradesh, where he grew up. But he was intelligent, and later gained a reputation for his orderly mind. “He planned everything in his head and had this amazing memory power,” Jesudasan said. “He would never forget his meetings or appointments. He had this clock constantly ticking in his head and it always alarmed him about his plans.”
Chadha, who was universally known as Ponty—he once told a reporter that the nickname was given to him by his father, and he liked it because “it was easy to remember and gelled with the trade”—learned early on never to yield an inch. The common perception is that whoever got in his way was either induced into an alliance or pushed out of business. “His strength was that he was brutal on the street and very sober with the government,” Gupta said. By the time he was killed, 10,000 armed men reportedly guarded the family’s many enterprises. Some of Chadha’s rivals had been murdered, and accusations of guilt were inevitably laid at his feet. The president of the Lucknow Sharab Association, Anil Agarwal, said Chadha had entered “the most outrageous domains of the liquor business”, in which any act of violence was possible. At other times, Chadha showed a willingness to betray his own kin.
Chadha often compared himself with a lotus that bloomed from the mire. His closest aide, Sweety Singh, told me a story that he seemed to consider an illustration of this moral decency. One of Chadha’s business rivals had hired a group of contract killers to assassinate Chadha. “The contract killers knew who Ponty was,” Sweety said, brimming with pride. “They called him and revealed the name of their client and asked if Ponty wanted him killed once and for all. But Ponty is such a great man that he said, no, don’t do him any harm. He was very kind-hearted.”
One way or another, Chadha’s interests were enforced. He eventually held sway over significant parts of the liquor business in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, and Chandigarh; had liquor operations in Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, and Chhattisgarh; and amassed a king’s ransom through his other enterprises.
Following Akhilesh’s appointment, it soon became clear which way the winds would blow for Chadha. A month after the swearing-in, Mulayam received Chadha for breakfast at his Lucknow home. The meal was dominated by silence: Mulayam spoke rarely, mostly complaining about his insomnia and other health problems; Chadha kept quiet. According to a senior SP leader who has been privy to many meetings between the two men, it was like a “father and son having a usual meal and communicating in hints and codes known only to them”. You don’t calculate the profits and losses at a meeting like that, the SP leader said. “You just need to convey that you are loyal to the politician—and Ponty had mastered that art.”
In the following months, Akhilesh backtracked on his campaign promises, allowing the liquor distribution policy that Mayawati had instituted to Chadha’s great advantage—and which she had renewed just months before the elections—to remain the law of the land. He then publicly denied that there were grounds for investigating the sugar mill auctions, effectively blocking an official probe; cleared all the Noida real estate projects that Chadha had initiated under Mayawati (which he had earlier promised to review); and renewed Chadha’s monopoly over the distribution of midday meals.
Though Akhilesh’s accommodations were a boon, Chadha was anything but complacent. At the same time that the new chief minister was applying more grease to the wheels of Chadha’s various enterprises, Chadha and his son, Monty, were working hard to shed the less seemly aspects of the family’s reputation, and to achieve a new respectability through enterprises such as their self-proclaimed “ultra-modern” real estate ventures.
But Chadha was not to see the full fruits of this labour. His attempts to refashion the family image were still underway in mid November 2012, when he was gunned down by his brother Hardeep in a shoot-out at one of the family’s many Delhi farmhouses. It was a violent, high-profile end to a life that began rather modestly in post-Partition Uttar Pradesh, and it seemed to fix the liquor baron’s reputation as a rags-to-riches gangster. But the killing, and the stories that emerged in its aftermath, also began to shed some light on how Chadha, largely a cipher to the public, had accomplished his remarkable rise.
MORADABAD IS A BATTERED CITY of small-time brass, copper, and steel producers about three hours east of Delhi. The small district centre of roughly 900,000 straddles a highway that runs from the capital to Jim Corbett National Park, along which a bunch of hotels, glittering with signboards, have recently sprung up. Once you enter the city, bicycles, scooters, cars and autorickshaws fight slowly through narrow roads. Driving past Moradabad’s famous market for brass utensils, you hit dense neighbourhoods such as Adarsh Colony, where Ponty Chadha grew up, in the early years of Mulayam’s ascent.
Ponty was born Gurdeep Singh Chadha, in Moradabad, on 22 October 1958. The town had a history of intense Hindu–Muslim rioting that stretched back at least a century, and many of the people Chadha grew up around had been scarred by the violence of Partition. The Sikh families who migrated from newly formed Pakistan were confined to a refugee settlement in Adarsh Colony. Those I spoke with said their community had always focused on business: they drove trucks, fixed cars and motorbikes, and opened small iron- and steel-producing units.
During Partition, Chadha’s grandfather Gurbachan migrated to Moradabad from Rawalpindi, where he was forced to leave behind his livelihood: a herd of cattle and buffaloes. In the United Provinces, he somehow managed to acquire new stock, and began selling milk. Around the time that the state was renamed Uttar Pradesh, in 1950, he had enough capital to begin producing bhang and country liquor. He was known for his staunch faith in God and his acts of charity, and never turned away beggars desperate for a dram. For a single peg of desi whiskey, he would ask them simply to utter the holy word. A mendicant would shout “Satnam!” and Gurbachan would pour spirits into his cup.
Chadha’s father and his two uncles took over the alcohol business in the early 1960s. The family—including the brothers’ respective wives and about a dozen siblings and cousins—lived under one roof. From producing country liquor for a single local shop, they moved into buying alcohol from larger distilleries and wholesaling it to several small outlets. By the 1970s, the family controlled a major proportion of the liquor distribution in Moradabad town. Early on, they decided to restrict the operation to blood relatives. Chadha was sent to boarding school in Nainital along with his cousin Gurjeet, who was known as Teetu. “Ponty was good at mathematics and he enjoyed geometry,” 61-year-old Gurdyal Singh, the Chadhas’ next door neighbour in Adarsh Colony, said. “The family had great expectations from Ponty and Teetu both, but no one ever imagined that Ponty would go so far.”
Teetu and Chadha were family, friends, and fierce competitors. Around the time they were 10, Teetu told me, they both nearly died in the accident that led to Chadha’s disfigurement. One evening while the rest of the family was busy with prayers, they went up to the terrace of the house to challenge one another to a rock slinging contest. They tied a long string to a stone and took turns hurling it from the balcony. On his go, Chadha took a great swing, which was followed by a loud thud. Chadha had collapsed. A few moments later, Teetu fell unconscious. The string had tangled in a high-voltage power line and the cousins were electrocuted. “Look at this hand,” Teetu said, holding up his left limb, which had only two fingers. “I got crippled, too.”
After the accident, Chadha struggled with his handicap. Holding a spoon or holding a pen—he had to clasp his world between two fingers. He learnt to do it well: by his early twenties, he rode a gearless bike around Moradabad, played neighbourhood cricket, and kept guns. “He was a very good shooter,” Darinder Singh, Chadha’s school friend and neighbour in Moradabad, who is known as Para, said. “He loved hunting musk deer. We would often set up a barbeque and roast the prey.” To hunt, Chadha wore an artificial arm with a sharp tip. He would rest the barrel on this arm and pinch the butt in his armpit. “Then he would pull the trigger with his two fingers,” Para said. “Those two fingers were as strong as pliers.”
After finishing high school in 1978, Chadha and Para enrolled in the undergraduate economics programme at HSB Inter College in central Moradabad. The majority of the students at the college were Hindu Jats. They teased Chadha for being crippled. “They called him loola, tunda,” Para said. “In the beginning he ignored them but a few days later it started bothering him a lot.” Chadha and Para hatched a plan to beat up the student who antagonised Chadha the most. They ambushed the student while he was having lunch inside a classroom. Chadha locked the door, and kicked the student’s table so hard that he mangled it. Chadha then asked Para to grab the student. Para, who is still tall and muscular, held the young man from behind. “Then Ponty headbutted him a couple times,” Para said.
News of the assault quickly spread, and soon a large group of Jats wielding knives, steel rods, and hockey sticks began searching for Chadha and Para. “We went into hiding,” Para said. They sought help from Para’s older brother, who ran a transport company in town and employed a few dozen Jats, and he negotiated with the leader of the Jat students. The price for Chadha’s safety was that he never went back to college.
IF CHADHA’S FORMAL EDUCATION WAS AT AN END, a more important one was just beginning. He and Teetu spent much of the 1980s as enforcers in the family business, raiding retail liquor shops to execute embargoes on bottles smuggled in from the borders of Punjab and Haryana, where alcohol was cheaper than it was in Uttar Pradesh. Shops with which the Chadhas contracted could only stock brands the family distributed, and anyone who infringed this rule soon watched his entire supply dry up.
As the family expanded its distribution network, Chadha’s remit grew. To help carry out his work, he founded a gang of informants, which he earnestly called “the vigilance team”. “He developed a strong intelligence network of spies across the town,” Mahinder Singh, the chief excise officer in Moradabad district, told me. Team members were given motorcycles to patrol the highways for smugglers, or bicycles to peddle from shop to shop as they kept a check on distribution. At the same time, Chadha was learning to use the local administration to his advantage. He was in close touch with Singh and other excise officers in Moradabad, and would tip off inspectors about smuggled liquor. “His team still shares its information with us,” Singh said.
By 1987, Chadha was completely consumed by the family business, which was pulling in significant amounts of cash. Under the guidance of his uncle and Teetu’s father, Harbhajan Singh, Chadha earned a decision-making stake. Chadha’s overriding ambition, a neighbourhood friend named AK Khanna told me, was “to bring order to the liquor trade of Moradabad”.
Harbhajan helped school Chadha in the value of political goodwill. He was the first in the family to establish contacts with Mulayam Singh Yadav, who became chief minister in 1989, at the head of the Janata Dal alliance. Since Independence, Uttar Pradesh had been largely dominated by the Congress party and its Brahmin hierarchs. Mulayam and his contemporaries represented a new breed of identity-based state politics in which muscular party leadership embodied hopes of caste empowerment. Yadavs, a peasant and pastoral caste who were seen by upper castes as uncouth and lacking in respect for the law, soon gained the whip hand in the state. Accusations of bribery, extortion, kidnapping and murder were common.
Chadha was eager to form his own links with these new powers. As a reward for his dedication to the family business, Harbhajan sent him on an important errand in advance of the 1989 elections: delivering Rs 8 lakh (worth roughly Rs 27.5 lakh or $45,000 today) to Mulayam. “The elections were close and Mulayam needed that cash,” Teetu’s son chipped in when I asked his father about the incident. When Mulayam defeated the Congressman ND Tiwari, and entered into a coalition with the Bharatiya Janata Party to form a government, Chadha brought him another present. “Mulayam didn’t have a car back then,” a close associate of the Chadha family told me. “Ponty gifted him one.”
After taking over as chief minister, Mulayam enacted a policy of “caste-based business tenders” that gave lower-caste communities living on riverbanks the exclusive right to extract sand and pebbles for resale. Thickets of new commercial and residential buildings were sprouting up along the north-western edge of Uttar Pradesh, where Delhi was expanding eastward into Noida, and the projects (which would soon be fertilised by economic liberalisation) required massive amounts of sand for concrete. Govind Pant Raju, a senior journalist based in Lucknow who was then a small-town newspaper reporter covering the operations of local mafias, said that Chadha “immediately pounced on this policy” and was awarded a claim. “Everyone wondered how he managed to get this contract from the government,” Raju said. “The policy was meant for lower castes living along rivers and there was no scope for subcontracting.”
The sand mines were a boon for the liquor business. “We made good profits,” said Teetu, who would accompany Chadha to his extraction sites, spread along the Gola river in Nainital district. “In return, we just had to give the government some royalty.” Chadha pumped revenues from the mines back into his liquor distribution network, which needed capital in order to spread to other markets, where the established players were backed by vicious gangs. He also began to cultivate a relationship with western Uttar Pradesh’s most powerful liquor baron, Kishan Lal Wadia. “Ponty was a small-time operator of Wadia in the early nineties,” a senior SP leader told me. “It was from Wadia that Ponty learned to cajole politicians, and it’s because of Wadia’s liquor money that Mulayam managed to influence the politics of western Uttar Pradesh.” Wadia’s backing gave Chadha the confidence to expand into the northern part of the state, which later became Uttarakhand.
Before he could push north, however, Chadha required muscle, and that muscle required leadership. “He first employed a group of notorious criminals,” the senior SP leader said. “Then he needed someone to lead these criminals.” In 1993, a violent dispute broke out in northern Uttar Pradesh between Harbhajan Singh Cheema (a politician who was also in the mining business) and Gurbachan Lal Sharma (a well known and deeply feared gangster) over a few acres of land. For the next two years, the two waged a bloody gang war in which dozens of men were killed. As a politician, Cheema had to appear frequently in public and needed a bodyguard. Sukhdev Singh Namdhari, a man with a reputation for violence, took the job.
In February 1995, Sharma was murdered by unidentified gunmen. Police arrested Namdhari, but he was quickly bailed out. “The common perception was that Namdhari gunned down Sharma,” Raju, the journalist, said. Here was Chadha’s much-needed man. Later that year, Chadha hired Namdhari—who eventually had 15 cases registered against him for crimes including criminal intimidation, dacoity and murder—to oversee his liquor and sand extraction projects in the north. Under the tutelage of Wadia, and with Namdhari by his side, Chadha expanded his distribution network from Moradabad to 18 districts in western and northern Uttar Pradesh—an achievement that would soon seem modest.
CHADHA’S UNCLE HARBHAJAN, a stout, turbaned man with a well waxed snow-white beard, is still a wholesaler of foreign liquor in Moradabad. Sitting in his office, a small room with finely polished walnut furniture on the first floor of a two-storey cinema hall that the family built in the 1970s—the first big investment the Chadha family made outside the liquor trade—he seemed to me to be frozen in that earlier era. Devotional songs played from somewhere beneath his desk. (He said he always listens to holy music at work.) The building, now drab, was veined with cracks.
Behind Harbhajan’s desk there was a glass cupboard. Inside, a framed picture showed two young men—Harbhajan and Mulayam. When I asked him whether he was still in contact with the SP leader, he said he wasn’t: “I lost touch with him because of Ponty. One day he told me that since he and Teetu were taking good care of business, I should stay away from Mulayam. He said, ‘Mulayam doesn’t like to entertain too many people for one purpose.’” Harbhajan then told me how Chadha, as he expanded into northern Uttar Pradesh in the mid 1990s, broke away from parts of the family. “He betrayed me,” Harbhajan said. “He took a 40 percent share from Moradabad and refused to give me anything from Uttarakhand.”
The mid 1990s marked the beginning of Chadha’s decade-long ascension from a small if politically well connected regional player to a shaping force in north India’s politics. This coincided with a period of radical upheaval that threw Uttar Pradesh open to new alignments of power. As the old order of the Congress was overturned by the identity politics of the SP, BSP, and the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, opportunities arose for local interests that had been outside Congress coteries to gain influence and office. Bitter contests broke out over control of the lucrative machinery of the state. Between 1993 and 2003, there were eight chief ministerships and three periods of president’s rule, all of which were accompanied by intense administrative churning. In 1995, the year that Mayawati first came to power, at least 500 officials were transferred around—or out of—the state bureaucracy; when she came back to power in 1997, after a year and a half of president’s rule, she transferred nearly 800.
In time, Chadha took advantage of many of these new alignments. His first order of business in the late 1990s, however, was to keep expanding his liquor operations, laying the groundwork for the distribution monopoly that he would later achieve.
State policy was to auction off wholesale liquor licenses on an annual basis. The number of outlets a wholesaler could serve was strictly limited, so in order to bag large numbers of licenses at a single go, Chadha pioneered a system called “playing proxy”: gather as many trustworthy people as possible and load them up with cash to outbid rivals. Through these cartels, which became known as “liquor syndicates”, Chadha snapped up most of the alcohol distribution licenses in western Uttar Pradesh.
More territory meant Chadha could harness his liquor business to forge new political alliances, reaching out not only to Mulayam and Mayawati, but also to Rajvir Singh (son of the two-time BJP chief minister Kalyan Singh), whom he reportedly made a partner in the liquor distribution of Aligarh district (where his father’s constituency was). (Rajvir denied this association with Chadha, telling me, “I have never worked with him. He had his own contacts and people like me never mattered to him. He was better off without the support of my father. He had already gained enough power in previous regimes.”)
Chadha also hoped to push his distribution network and its influence into other parts of the state but, for the time being, he was blocked by equally powerful rivals, such as the Mulayam supporter (and future SP politician) Jawahar Lal Jaiswal. Instead, he found a frontier in Punjab, where a tussle over liquor and politics had erupted between Sukhbir Singh Badal (son of the chief minister, Parkash Singh Badal) and his brother-in-law, Adesh Pratap Singh Kairon. In 2001, with the elder Badal’s five-year term nearing its end and fresh assembly elections around the corner, the family’s Akali Dal party began searching for new candidates.
In business and in politics, Sukhbir supported the Akali Dal old guard, which was affiliated to the biggest liquor distributor in Punjab, Jagdish Singh Garcha, who also served as the state’s minister for technical education. Kairon, who was the excise and taxation minister, lobbied to get party tickets for business associates who wanted to enter politics, but were frozen out by Garcha’s control over liquor distribution. Kairon’s candidates could only woo voters if he tapped his own booze supplies. “To break Garcha’s monopoly,” said KS Chawla, a journalist based in Ludhiana who has covered the Badal–Kairon row, “he brought Ponty to Punjab.”
A couple of months before the elections in early 2002, there was to be an auction of Ludhiana retail liquor shops at which Garcha and Chadha were expected to face off as agents for Sukhbir and Kairon. Chief Minister Badal postponed the auction three times, hoping that he could arbitrate a truce between his son and son-in-law. But the clashes persisted, and the auction was eventually held, in nearby Patiala. It was Chadha’s first foray into Punjab. Bidding liberally, he and his syndicate snaffled up shops worth Rs 16 crore per year. “Ponty never cared about the market,” Garcha, now in his late 70s, told me. “For a liquor shop worth 10 lakh rupees, he would propose 50 lakh.” After acquiring large wholesale licenses, Chadha would then co-opt the small middlemen who connected distributors to hole-in-the-wall shops. “He was loaded with a lot of money and he bought almost every small-time contractor,” said Garcha, who for a while managed to hold on to half the district’s retail stores.
As it turned out, neither Garcha’s liquor and Sukhbir’s votes nor Kairon’s votes and Chadha’s liquor could keep the Akali Dal in power, and Sukhbir’s father was shunted out of office by the Congress politician Amrinder Singh. This didn’t seem to matter much to Chadha, however. He now had a foothold in Punjab and set about playing the game he had mastered in Uttar Pradesh: massaging politicians’ egos while aggressively pursuing market share. He quickly established a strong bond with the chief minister, with whom he socialised frequently. On one occasion, Singh, after disappearing from Punjab without alerting even his own security officers, suddenly issued a press statement from Dubai announcing that he was attending the wedding of someone close to Chadha. But Chadha’s influence was also percolating down through the state’s liquor apparatus: excise officers overseeing local auctions would hold the bidding for hours if Chadha needed to turn up late. Over the course of the next three years, Chadha poached almost all the contractors from Garcha’s network.
In the late summer of 2005, in the middle of Singh’s reign in Punjab, Chadha attended golden jubilee celebrations for Dhudial Khalsa Senior Secondary School in Patiala, where he had won his first retail shops. There, a politician from the Akali Dal who was close to Kairon baited Chadha by accusing him of running a liquor mafia in Punjab. Ponty answered politely, “The mafia doesn’t care about generating revenue for the government. In my case, I care a lot about the government. I run this business and add huge sums to the state exchequer.” Here, distilled, was the political genius of Chadha’s enterprise. Before leaving the event, he announced that he would renovate the school, which was dilapidated, and build it a new storey.
IN 2003, as Chadha was taking advantage of his opening in Punjab and raking in cash through his monopolies in Uttarakhand and western Uttar Pradesh, a BSP-BJP coalition government under the leadership of Mayawati, which had come to power following a remarkably close election the previous year, was struggling to maintain its integrity. In late August, the BJP withdrew its support for the chief minister, and the coalition crumbled. Amid calls for dissolution of the assembly, Mulayam rallied, gathering enough support to stave off fresh elections and regain power in Lucknow.
Shortly afterwards, Mulayam and Amar Singh, the SP party general secretary, began distributing favours to their dearest benefactors. Singh lobbied on behalf of the real estate dealer Ashok Chaturvedi, who was given a large tract of land in Noida. “The arrangement between Singh and Mulayam was that except for [the industrialist] JP Gaur and Chaturvedi, no one would ever enter into the real estate sector in Noida,” a close associate of Singh’s told me.
In addition to trying to bolster his friends, Singh hoped the agreement would stifle Chadha, who had just begun to funnel profits from his liquor empire into other industries, including real estate. “Amar tried his best to turn Mulayam against Ponty,” the former SP leader told me. “He would often say, ‘Why are we helping this man? He changes his colour like a chameleon.’” But Mulayam and Chadha went back to the days of NE 1000, and the chief minister soon publicly inaugurated one of Chadha’s first real estate projects, the 314,500-square-foot Wave Mall in Lucknow, one of five Wave malls that Chadha would eventually build.
Singh, his close associate said, was “disgruntled”, but the chief minister proved indifferent to his constant grumblings against Chadha. “Mulayam doesn’t care a damn about loyalties,” the former SP leader said. “All he cares about is his own share—and when it comes to distributing money, Ponty’s record was always clean.” Singh confirmed this view of Chadha, telling me that Chadha was a “transparent and honest creator, distributor and maintainer of ill-gotten wealth”. (When I asked him about Chaturvedi, he said he knew him and other players from a distance: “Chaturvedi would come and meet me just like anyone would meet me. These guys—Ashok, Ponty and JP Gaur—they had direct contact with Mulayam. I was never part of that circle.”)
Chadha did well under Mulayam, but the real explosion in his wealth took place when Mayawati came back to power. Propelled by a number of convenient decisions by her BSP government, Chadha was able to force out his remaining opponents in Uttar Pradesh’s alcohol distribution market, bag a significant portion of the state’s retail liquor shops, massively extend his real estate ventures, and gather into his ever expanding arms a whole range of new enterprises, including the sugar mills and food distribution contracts. A hallmark of several of these endeavours seemed to be vertical integration: liquor sold in his new Model Wine shops was supplied by his distribution company; instead of small change, Model Wine customers were given little snack packets made by his new food processing plant; and the Bollywood films he produced were distributed through his new film distribution company and shown at his 11 Wave multiplexes. Every link in these chains could be exploited to disguise profits through financial misreporting of one kind or another. For example, Chadha quickly developed a reputation for distributing some of the country’s worst movies (such as Jism II); it was easy to claim that such tripe sold poorly at the box office, especially when Chadha was the one collecting the ticket stubs, but a senior SP leader told me that the films earned more than critics or tax collectors ever thought.
If malfeasance fuelled much of this acceleration in Chadha’s interests, scandal was its inevitable by-product. One of the most significant of the improprieties that emerged from Mayawati’s association with Chadha at this time involved the sugar mills. In 2010 and 2011, her government held auctions of 21 under-performing state-owned refineries, 16 of which were bought by seven firms that turned out to be a cartel controlled by Chadha. Many of these companies had common shareholders and directors, shared a single address, and paid to participate in the auctions using demand drafts with consecutive serial numbers issued by the same bank branch on the same day. This lack of competition alone cost the state an estimated Rs 200 crore, according to the CAG report later filed in the case. Although the details are complex, at least a dozen improprieties were identified in the sale of the mills, including undervaluation of the land and other assets, and disclosure of the minimum acceptable bid. In total, the CAG said that the state lost more than Rs 2000 crore through its illicit management of the auctions.
In another high-profile case, the Mayawati government violated a Supreme Court ruling in order to permit Chadha’s Great Value Foods to become the sole supplier of lunches for the state’s midday meal scheme. The supply contracts, which were supposed to go to certain kinds of local community groups and feed more than 2 crore children and pregnant women, were worth roughly Rs 10,000 crore. Later, it turned out that the food Chadha was providing fell far below the prescribed nutritional standards.
The biggest bonanza to which Mayawati helped Chadha was in the liquor trade. The year after she was appointed as chief minister, the state’s liquor distribution policy was changed to ban wholesalers from directly purchasing liquor from distilleries. Instead, the government handed over wholesale and distribution rights for the entire state to the government-owned Uttar Pradesh Cooperative Sugar Factories’ Federation, which in turn subcontracted the job to Blue Water, a private beverage company whose ownership ultimately answered to Chadha. “The government did not advertise the subcontracting, and the entire trade was handed over to Ponty,” said SP Singh, the president of the Lucknow Wine Association and a distant relative of Chadha’s, who became a staunch adversary of the baron after Chadha shafted him in a distribution deal. “The lifeline of every distributor was in his hands. It was his wish to choke us, drown us or simply ignore us. He played those games very well.”
Chadha used his new monopoly to add 10 to 15 percent to the maximum retail price of liquor—a levy that became known as “Ponty prasad” or “Ponty tax”. This allowed him to generate his own substantial profits while at the same time pumping money into the state exchequer and rewarding Mayawati for her patronage. Between 2008 and 2012, state revenues on liquor excise increased more than 70 percent to Rs 8,139 crore. (One Lucknow liquor distributor who worked under Chadha told me that price hikes always work, because “people need alcohol like cars need petrol.”)
Perhaps understandably, the excise commissioner of Uttar Pradesh during much of this period, Mahesh Gupta, saw Chadha in a somewhat rosier light than SP Singh. Soon after Gupta took up his post in 2008, Chadha came from Delhi to pay his respects in person at Gupta’s official residence in Lucknow, and the two men visited with one another on several subsequent occasions. “He was a very careful human being,” Gupta said. “He would fix an appointment with you, though he could have simply called and met us whenever he felt like it. But he would always follow proper procedure.”
The “proper procedures” became even more lucrative for Chadha after Mayawati changed the retail rules so that he could corner all the liquor shops in the western part of the state. Chadha could now buy alcohol from distilleries and sell it direct to consumers at his own shops. Allegedly, Chadha also cut a number of backroom deals to boost his profits; according to SP Singh, he made a secret agreement with Vijay Mallya to promote the latter’s Kingfisher beer and McDowell’s No. 1 whiskey over other brands. Before Chadha’s death, Singh said, “you couldn’t find Radico Khaitan in the market. Their 8PM brand had become a dream.”
The takings from these monopolies were a boon for Wave Infratech, Chadha’s real estate business, which initiated three major projects in Noida during the period of Mayawati’s reign, including two commercial complexes of more than 2 million square feet each. A fourth project, Ghaziabad’s Wave City, was officially launched only two months after her tenure as chief minister came to an end. In all of these cases, Mayawati was accused of selling the land off to Chadha at absurdly low rates.
In Moradabad, Chadha’s uncle Harbhajan told me that, to his death, Chadha continued to exclude him from the conspicuous riches that these new projects had brought. “I met him a thousand times over the issue—that my son’s heart burns when he sees your shopping malls and wealth; you should give us our share,” Harbhajan said. “Even his father agreed that we deserved an equal share, but Ponty kept playing with me by delaying the proceedings.”
CHADHA’S DISPUTE WITH HARBHAJAN was by no means the most heated, or the most intimate, of the family arguments that seemed to come to a boil as the Chadha fortune grew. In 2010, Chadha’s brother Hardeep began pressuring their father, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, to dictate that the family’s holdings be evenly split between Chadha, Hardeep, and their third brother, Rajinder, according to a report later published in India Today. Chadha bristled: it was his leadership that grew the family’s alcohol distribution network from a single small town in western Uttar Pradesh into the largest liquor monopoly in north India; it was his hard graft that pushed the frontiers of their empire into other lucrative industries, such as sand mining and real estate; and it was his influence that seeped behind the lace curtains and into the back seats of cherry-topped Ambassadors in Dehradun, Chandigarh, Lucknow, and Delhi.
Hardeep eventually prevailed on their ailing father, and Chadha felt compelled to accede to his dying wishes. But he did so in bad faith: when their father passed away, in April 2011, Chadha reneged on the deal. For the next 16 months, the brothers argued face-to-face and through intermediaries over what they were each due. According to Balbir Singh Kohli, a close relative of the Chadha family, Chadha felt Hardeep was being manipulated. “Some people are misleading him against me,” Chadha told Kohli. “I want him to understand that.”
If 45-year-old Hardeep was susceptible to manipulation, perhaps it was because he ached to step out of Chadha’s shadow. “Wherever Hardeep went, people always recognised him as Ponty’s brother,” Ravi Sodhi, a spokesperson for Chadha’s largest company, Wave Group, told me. “He wanted his own identity.” As a result, he became increasingly imperious. “Hardeep would shout and yell at his servants just to say that he was someone important in the family,” Sodhi said. He had also taken to stroking a cat while sitting in a throne as he received guests at the Chhatarpur mansion he shared with the family and, on a recent occasion, he had inexplicably set fire to carpets worth lakhs of rupees. “After every passing month, the dispute grew bigger,” Kohli said.
The brothers’ larger quarrel over the family’s empire soon began to centre on a pair of farmhouses that Hardeep intended to dispose of against his brother’s wishes. Chadha, who was magnanimous with friends and enemies alike but could brook no impudence, was furious. Although the homes were a negligible part of the fortune he had accumulated over his two and a half decades of canny business leadership and oily political lobbying, he had resolved to keep them in the family.
On 15 November 2012, with the brothers’ acrimony reaching a fever pitch, family members prevailed on them to meet at a Delhi gurdwara. Remarkably, a second settlement was reached: according to India Today, Chadha agreed to buy Hardeep out of the business for something between Rs 400 crore and Rs 1,200 crore. It must have seemed like a small price to pay to rid himself, and the empire he built, of his brother’s meddling. But whatever relief there was didn’t last long. The next day, another meeting was called between Chadha and his brother. Hardeep, reportedly hectored by the people counselling him against Chadha, annulled the payout deal. It was the final nail.
Shortly after 9.50 a.m. on Saturday the 17th, Chadha convened a meeting of armed men at his family’s Chhatarpur mansion, on Delhi’s south-western outskirts, where he lived with his mother and both his brothers. In attendance was his long-time henchman, Sukhdev Singh Namdhari (who was now serving as Uttarakhand’s minorities commissioner), as well as at least 11 others. According to chargesheets later filed in a Delhi district court, Chadha divided his and Namdhari’s men into two detachments and directed them to storm the contested properties, forcibly evict anyone present, and seize control, while he and Namdhari stayed back and waited for news.
Arriving at 42 DLF Farms, the squad assigned to the property overturned a white Maruti parked in front of one of the property’s several gates, and then set about smashing all the gate locks. They rushed onto the grounds and busted into the house, viciously beating as many of the staff and security guards as they could find, stripping them of their mobile phones, and then forcing them off the property. According to statements made by several of the staff members, there were 30 to 40 men in the raiding party, which carried rifles, pistols, revolvers, hockey sticks, dandas and swords. After seizing the farmhouse, new locks and cans of black paint were distributed to some of the men. They painted over a “for sale” sign that Hardeep had put up and a plaque outside the house that bore his name, then secured all the gates. But one of the staff members who had been assaulted managed to escape with his mobile phone and get word to Hardeep, who was soon racing to the property from his office in Noida.
Once the house was locked down, Chadha and Namdhari were called. At 12.30 p.m., they reached the locked rear entrance in a dark green Toyota Land Cruiser. Sachin Tyagi, a 27-year-old Uttarakhand police constable assigned to Namdhari as a personal security officer was in the front next to the driver, strapped with a nine-millimetre carbine rifle. One of Chadha’s aides, Narender Ahlawat, soon arrived to open the gate. Just as he popped the lock, Hardeep charged up in a Mercedes. According to witness statements, Hardeep sprung out of the car brandishing a pistol, and approached Ahlawat, hurling abuses. Then he shoved Ahlawat, and shot him in the leg.
Chadha began to climb out of the Land Cruiser, but Hardeep was now facing him. Hardeep cursed his brother, then pumped seven shots into his legs, abdomen, back and chest. He then turned towards the open gate. Namdhari levelled his pistol—a .30-bore that he had licensed illegally using a forged ration card—at Hardeep. Tyagi, too, put Chadha’s brother in his sights. Then they opened fire, hitting him twice. A slug that entered through Hardeep’s back tore a track through his lungs, filling them with blood, before exiting briefly through his right armpit and then boring clean through his arm.
Chadha was haemorrhaging wildly, but he was apparently still alive. Namdhari and Tyagi secured him in the Land Cruiser as Hardeep, suffocating with his own blood, took shelter in a guardhouse by the gate, where his body was later found. The Land Cruiser then tore off in the direction of Fortis Hospital, in Vasant Kunj, with Chadha bleeding out in the back seat. At 1.05 p.m., doctors at the hospital declared him dead on arrival.
BY THAT EVENING, hastily reported accounts of the fratricide were vying for air on prime-time news shows with obituaries of the Shiv Sena demagogue Bal Thackeray, who died in Mumbai that afternoon. As word of the killings spread, Chadha-controlled businesses across north India closed their doors amid uncertainty over what would befall the decapitated empire in the coming hours and days. Wave cineplexes ceased screenings, Wave malls were emptied out, and police officers were dispatched to stand guard by shuttered Model Wine shops across Uttar Pradesh. Allegations of conspiracy soon began to emerge, with some claiming that Namdhari had orchestrated the shoot-out in order to expropriate millions of rupees that Chadha had invested in his name.
Namdhari was arrested in Uttarakhand two days after the killing, at a press conference where he was pleading innocence in the shootings. In the next two weeks, Delhi police detained 20 more people in connection with the crime. Three chargesheets have since been filed, but the case remains sub-judice, and Namdhari continues to maintain his innocence. For its part, the Chadha family seems convinced that, in effect, brother killed brother. “It’s just two minutes of anger has destroyed a beautiful family,” Paramjeet Singh Sarna, a close relative, told me. He said the fraternal dispute over money and influence within the family was almost resolved.
Two days after Chadha and Hardeep’s deaths, it was announced that Chadha’s son, 33-year-old Monty, would take the reins of the company. A high-school dropout who seems to have passed much of his youth behind the red-velvet cordons of Delhi’s most expensive night clubs, Monty had spent the past couple of years trying to help his father slough off the Chadha family’s notorious reputation. When the Wave City project was conceived, the company made Monty the face of it, and he became the man journalists wanted to interview. Chadha handled the backend operations, keeping tabs on the money and clearing up a million little hurdles the government puts in the way. Following the tax department raids, it was Monty’s idea to hire the spokesman Ravi Sodhi, who had previously worked for Anil Ambani, and to set up the Wave Group’s first public-relations department. Monty now works closely with his childless uncle, Rajinder, who was immensely loyal to Chadha, but Sodhi told me that Monty’s decisions are final.
Earlier this year, I went to the Wave Group’s Noida headquarters to meet Monty and ask him about his father and the future of his father’s empire. As I entered the office, a multi-storied glass building inaugurated a few months after Chadha’s death, two big garlanded portraits of Chadha and his late father, Kulwant, welcomed me. Sodhi appeared and shepherded me through a long corridor that led to a thick metal door, where he stopped to scan his fingerprint on a small box. The door opened, and we walked into another corridor, by a meeting room labelled “Chanakya.” Suddenly, a door to the room slid open. Inside, Monty, in a maroon turban and plush-looking brown shoes, was sitting at a round table with one of his employees, whose name and job description I never got.
During our conversation, Monty, with his alert eyes and softly rasping voice, discussed the sense of great responsibility with which his father’s sudden death left him. At present, the company’s main target is to finish its ambitious Wave City project, which Monty pitched to me as “something like downtown Manhattan”. The first phase, which is presently under construction, has 1,400 apartments, two office buildings, and a shopping mall. Monty’s top priority, he said, is to finish this project by 2016. He then asked me why I was interested in writing about his father, and listened quietly to my response with his head down. When I finished, Monty raised his head and said that he would discuss the matter with his senior officers. “Sorry,” he said, offering me a firm handshake. “We want some time to think.” He never got back to me.
Although the killing of Chadha and Hardeep seemed to cement the less admirable qualities of Chadha’s reputation, it may also have freed Monty from the legacy of his father’s corruption. Shortly after Chadha’s death, Akhilesh Yadav quashed all outstanding investigations into Chadha’s business dealings, leaving Monty free to pursue greater respectability. But the Uttar Pradesh chief minister renewed the Chadhas’ liquor monopoly in early summer, projecting record-high excise revenues for the state. Regardless of where Monty says he wants to focus the family business, the economics of the liquor industry and the political conditions out of which the Chadha empire grew persist, and isn’t clear that anyone who finds his hand on the tap and his mouth at the spigot can find the will to let go.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that the car Ponty Chadha allegedly presented Mulayam Singh Yadav had the number plate "NE 1000". This has been changed online.