New Delhi: Gurdeep Singh Chadha was one of India's most powerful businessmen, a liquor and real estate baron whose influence was intertwined with his money. Known as Ponty, he was a mysterious figure, described in the media as an "invisible man," even as his political influence protected him.
But Chadha, who was in his mid- to late 50s, was killed Saturday, shot in the chest, reportedly by his younger brother Hardeep, who was also killed, after an argument escalated into a gunfight at a luxury farmhouse outside New Delhi. The Shakespearean overtones were inescapable: The brothers had been fighting over the family business since their father's death last year. They converged at the farmhouse with retinues of armed guards, and soon the bullets flew.
"Some businesses need BlackBerrys," said a member of the extended family, who would identify himself only as Mr. Kohli. "Some businesses need guards."
In an era of rampant crony capitalism, Chadha was among the class of businessmen who symbolized the nexus between money and political power in India. He exerted influence in four northern states, especially in Uttar Pradesh, home to roughly 200 million people, where he had been awarded monopoly control over the state's wholesale liquor business and held the contract to provide millions of daily midday meals to poor schoolchildren.
His power in Uttar Pradesh was evident within hours of his death: Nearly all the liquor stores in the huge state were shuttered, according to the online edition of Tehelka, an Indian newsmagazine, while his family's multiplex movie theaters also closed down. Critics say Chadha bought his influence with bribes, though such charges were never proved.
"It's a sad reflection on the state of Indian politics that a man like him could wield so much clout," said Prakash Singh, who once commanded the state police in Uttar Pradesh. "He used money power to great advantage."
The Chadha family's wealth has been estimated to be $1 billion to $10 billion, with holdings that include paper mills, shopping malls, movie theaters, sugar refineries and residential real estate projects. The family business, now known as Wave Inc., began under the Chadhas' father but expanded rapidly during the past decade as Gurdeep Chadha courted political leaders, especially Mayawati, a former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. Chadha gained control of the liquor business and was allowed to purchase several state-owned sugar mills at deeply discounted prices.
In February, he seemed to have finally fallen out of official favor. Tax inspectors raided his offices, though so far nothing has come of the investigation.
His supporters praised his generous nature, noting that he had built a hospital for mentally and physically disabled children, made donations to the poor and paid to restore temples of his Sikh religion.
"Successful people are always targeted; therefore, he was targeted by the media," said Vijayant Jaiswal, a longtime business partner. "I would say he made the best use of the system. For any business of that scale, not just the liquor business, you need to have political backing."
Chadha's violent death stunned India's political class, as well as his extended family. On Sunday, hundreds of people gathered at a crematorium in New Delhi, awaiting the arrival of his body and his brother's. Arrangements had been made to conduct simultaneous funeral rites and incinerate the bodies side by side. Indeed, the family had bought half-page obituary notices in Sunday's issues of some leading Indian newspapers, in which photographs of both brothers were featured.
"Imagine two brothers fighting, responsible for each other's killing," said one man at Sunday's ceremony, Sahni, who gave only his surname. "Then they are on the same obituary page in the papers. And now they are being cremated side by side." There were conflicting witness accounts of Saturday's confrontation, but, broadly, police officials told Indian news media that the shootout had been set off by a dispute over ownership of the luxury farmhouse. By some accounts. Gurdeep Chadha had taken an armed entourage to seize control of the property, and his brother Hardeep had rushed over with his own guards to confront him. An argument erupted, and the younger brother is reported to have shot Gurdeep Chadha. He was then shot by one of Gurdeep Chadha's security guards.
Gaurang Kanth, a lawyer for Hardeep Chadha, said the brothers lived together with their families in a different farmhouse south of New Delhi, a common practice among many Indian families. He said the family was trying to divide business holdings amicably through an out-of-court settlement. He also said Hardeep Chadha had called him Saturday as he was rushing to the farmhouse to confront Gurdeep Chadha and his guards.
"He said, 'Make a police complaint,"' Kanth recalled.
Questions about the killings remain. Both brothers were killed and a third man was wounded, yet no one else was reported wounded even though the rival groups apparently fired scores of bullets. Moreover, both brothers were accompanied by police officers from Punjab state, assigned to them for security. The officers' actions in the gunfight are also under scrutiny.
"This whole thing was a complete surprise," said Kanth, who was skeptical that ownership of the farmhouse was the real cause of the shootout.
"They had so much property," he added. "Why would they be fighting over this? Something else triggered it."
(Hari Kumar and Raksha Kumar contributed reporting.)
© 2012, The New York Times News Service