LAW and Pandit Sukh Ram don't mix. He was a poor student, barely managing to scrape through Delhi Law School, and a worse lawyer. Seven months of practice at the Mandi district courts in 1953 made it clear the impoverished Pandit Bhav Dev's second son would have to seek his fortune elsewhere.
So the newly-married youth entered the world of wheeler-dealers, first as a petty government employee and later as a politician. He found his metier and struck pay dirt. In a political career spanning three decades, the boy who had lived in the Raja of Mandi's servant quarters in Delhi was to amass enough wealth to make his erstwhile benefactor look a pauper by comparison.
The seedy hut in Kotli village where Sukh Ram was born 69 years ago (and where his mother still lives) is 12 km and an entire world away from his large kothi in Mandi town. Which, in turn, pales in comparison with his orchard-ringed palatial property in Surath-Radi, 60 km to the north.
As Sukh Ram flourished, so did his family (he is one of 10 children). One brother, a compressor driver, acquired liquor vends and now reportedly has property in Kotli, Mandi, Pandoh, Sundernagar and Dumtah. Another, who was a tailor, now owns two houses in Mandi. A nephew, Jaikrishen, has grown wealthy off government contracts and runs a hotel in Manali. Sundry other nephews are well provided for, with at least one PCO licence each. One of Sukh Ram's sons, Anoop, runs a business in London while the other, Anil, is a state minister. He also owns Mandi's Mayfair Hotel, a modern building that cheekily blocks the view of the picturesque Raj Mahal (whose land it has allegedly encroached upon). His youngest daughter, a widow, lives with him and is alleged to have been a beneficiary of former petroleum minister Satish Sharma's largesse.
The slush-route began when Sukh Ram became secretary to the Mandi municipal committee in 1953. Before the decade was up, the penniless clerk had a house on Mandi's National Street. All went well till a district magistrate stumbled across serious irregularities in the municipal committee's functioning. Sukh Ram was compelled to quit.
An assembly byelection was due in Mandi at the time and caste conflicts were brewing; Sukh Ram seized the opportunity. An independent, he won by projecting himself as a champion of the rural poor (he still calls himself a farmer, though his professed interest in his front garden is the closest he has ever come to agriculture).
When the 1967 assembly elections came, he wangled the Congress ticket. Y.S. Parmar, then chief minister, used Sukh Ram to cut his rivals down to size. He got similar patronage from Parmar's successor, Thakur Ram Lal, and hopped a series of key portfolios. "His talent for sycophancy is undeniable. It has helped him all his life...with professors, chief ministers, prime ministers alike," comments an old college-mate, Dr Vishwanath.
Scandal seemed to love Sukh Ram. As state taxation and excise minister, he was charged with illegal recruitments and later with land encroachment and unauthorised tree-felling. In 1972, his election was set aside on charges of corrupt poll practices. In the mid-'80s, Virbhadra Singh managed to pack him off to the Centre, where he was soon embroiled in the sugar scandal.
If Sukh Ram flourished despite his corrupt image, it's because Mandi has flourished with him—a modern pucca bazaar, phone on demand, jobs for sons and handouts for all. Mandi rejoiced when the Supreme Court gave him a clean chit in the telecom scam. And it sent him to Parliament with a record margin.
Now, it wears a subdued and embarrassed air, as if the disgrace visited on its MP is shared by all. For four months, CBI teams had been quietly visiting Mandi town, investigating a scam involving optic fibre cables. So, when a fresh team arrived at the State Electricity Board guest house on August 15, no eyebrows were raised. They requested the SP to provide a jeepload of constables and the State Bank of India to lend them some tellers on the following day. Sukh Ram's son, Anil Sharma, attended the Independence Day function in the town before leaving for Manali.
The raid began early next morning, at 6.30 am. The only witnesses were Sukh Ram's servant and a group of masons who had been repairing the marble flooring of the house. By late afternoon, when Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh arrived in Mandi, the news had spread all over the town. As the day wore on and more and more money spilled out of the cupboards in the first-floor bedroom—the bank tellers requisitioned by the CBI finished counting only at midnight—the initial surprise turned to shock. A Swiss bank account is vague and abstract; Rs 1.16 crore in hard cash is scandal.
Four days later, the CBI team visited Mayfair Hotel and questioned its manager and his brother. It also went to Surath-Radi, but recovered nothing from either place except stray documents. Anil Sharma, meanwhile, disappeared. He is believed to be consulting lawyers regarding anticipatory bail for his father before he returns to Delhi.
Sukh Ram's supporters are confused and have no defence to offer. They cling to the feeble hope that "Panditji will explain everything when he comes". At least one close aide is planning to jump ship. Only in Kotli village, where his family still owns a few bighas of land, is he accorded a staunch defence. Suraj Mani, who went to school with Sukh Ram, says: "I can't believe what is being said about him. He was such a good lad, never quarrelled with anyone or created trouble."
A funereal air hangs over Sukh Ram's house in Mandi, inhabited only by his daughter-in-law and her retinue. Except for a group of creditors, worried that they may not get paid, everyone avoids the house. Mandi has lost its hero.