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Akalis, Cong both carried Ponty's Punjab palanquin

Prabhjit Singh and Vishal Rambani  Chandigarh/Patiala, November 18, 2012
First Published: 00:17 IST(18/11/2012) | Last Updated: 12:40 IST(18/11/2012)

He may have started his liquor trade in Punjab in the 1997-2002 Akali-BJP regime, but Gurdeep Singh 'Ponty' Chadha's high point in the state came when Congress' Capt Amarinder Singh was the chief minister. In 2005, Ponty accompanied a gold-plated palanquin carrying the Sri Guru Granth Sahib in a procession from Delhi to Nankana Sahib in Pakistan, enjoying massive politico-religious patronage.

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Born in UP's Moradabad, Ponty gave wings to his father's humble distillery business, using his political connections to first bag liquor contracts, sugar mills and multiplexes in UP, and later in Punjab during the 1997-2002 Akali-BJP regime.

His rise was first spotted in 2001, when he broke the liquor trade monopoly of the then Akali minister Jagdish Singh Garcha by winning the Ludhiana vends' auction for Rs. 17 crore. Garcha was reportedly close to CM Parkash Singh Badal's son Sukhbir, but the CM's son-in-law Adesh Partap Singh Kairon allegedly brought Ponty into Punjab after a spat with Sukhbir. It helped that the excise and taxation ministry, which oversees the liquor business, was with Kairon.

It was widely believed at the time, and not without reason, that "no auction of the liquor vends in Punjab will conclude until Ponty Chadha or his men arrive". "Some auctions lasted barely five minutes. Many of our former officials remained on his payrolls after retirement," said an excise officer.

As the Congress came to power under Amarinder, Ponty's close relative Paramjit Singh Sarna -- the Badals' sworn enemy who is currently president of the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (DSGMC) -- helped him keep his interests safe.

The equation was on public display when Ponty, who was known to be religious despite running a controversial business centered on his liquor trade, sat calmly besides a palanquin carrying the Guru Granth Sahib as it entered Pakistan in December 2005; Amarinder and Sarna were part of the procession.

Ponty was understood to have financed the gold-plated palanquin, a venture of the Sarna-Amarinder duo, and some religious bodies and the Sikh diaspora slammed the show-off. But Ponty, after entering Lahore, managed to evade the media gaze, as he did throughout his life. In fact, his Bollywood production 'Jo Bole So Nihal' the same year drew criticism from religious organisations over some scenes involving a Sikh protagonist.

But his rise had seen another marker in June 2005, when Amarinder had made it a point to attend a wedding in Ponty's family in Dubai, controversially not taking permission from the foreign ministry, which is mandatory for a CM.

By the time the Akalis returned to power in 2007, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) president and deputy CM Sukhbir is believed to have pressed against Ponty's monopoly in the liquor business, primarily due to Ponty's proximity with Amarinder and Sarna. Yet, Ponty's sugar mills and realty interests flourished.

As for liquor, he focused his energies on UP, and remained a religious workaholic. "He (Ponty) worked 16-17 hours every day," said Jagdish Randhawa, who handled his ventures in Punjab.
But Ponty's relations with the Akalis too seemed to have got a boost lately -- besides Amarinder, Sukhbir also attended the wedding of Ponty's daughter in February this year, days after a high-decibel poll campaign against each other.

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