Till he found himself at the centre of the Gujarat snooping row,Pranlal Soni was known in Bhuj for both his family’s flourishing jewellery business and for,back in 2001,using it to help rebuild a market in the city after that year’s devastating earthquake. Soni did so,incidentally,at the initiative of another person in the snooping row,now suspended IAS officer Pradeep Sharma. Three years later,when the revamped market opened,the person to inaugurate it would be Narendra Modi,who would have taken over as Chief Minister by then.
That’s the only time the paths of the three are known to have crossed. There is some talk of Soni having been an RSS member,but few in Kutch district,under which Bhuj falls,back that. How that association centred around a jewellery market led up to the current row,involving Soni’s daughter and both an affidavit by Sharma indicting Modi and letters by Soni absolving him,is something few in Bhuj admit to have a clue about.
In the intervening 12 years,a lot has changed. Starting with the fact that 65-year-old Soni,a prominent member of Bhuj’s Rotary Club,now lives in Ahmedabad with his wife. A few months ago,he also sold off his jewellery shop.
In 2001 though,that shop at the corner of Dhobi Street on Bhuj’s Suhag ring road,Hem Jewellers,was a known landmark of the city. It was started by Pranlal’s father,the late Narbheram. The second of Narbheram’s three sons,Pranlal holds a Mechanical Engineering degree but followed in his father’s footsteps to become a leading member of the city jeweller community. Traders in Sharaf and Kansara bazars,the jewellery market of Bhuj,give credit to Soni for widening the Sharaf Bazaar lane after the 2001 earthquake. Pradeep Sharma was the district collector of Kutch at the time. “Pranlal convinced jewellers and owners of other shops in Sharaf Bazaar to give up some part of their premises so that the alley could be turned into a wider road. Sharma also took keen interest in widening of the bazaar and the two developed a very fine understanding,” admits a member of the Soni family.
The widening was over in a few months and Modi inaugurated it on January 27,2004.
In his letter,Soni defended the Modi government’s alleged stalking of his daughter,saying that the CM only provided “protection” to her at his behest,because of their long family association with the CM. However,Soni’s family members admit they don’t know if he ever met Modi after that 2004 inauguration.
“He was an active member of the Rotary Club of Bhuj,but he was never too much into politics. I don’t think he had any contact with the Chief Minister,” says Kishor Tanna,incumbent president of the Rotary Club of Bhuj and Soni’s friend.
The Soni bungalow,which is now locked,is located behind the Rotary Bhavan in Bhuj.
The Sonis have three children,two sons apart from the daughter whom the Modi government is alleged to have stalked. Soni’s wife is from Bangalore and all the three children studied there.
The two sons are co-founders of a smart grid company incubated at the Centre of Incubation,Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIIE),at IIM-Ahmedabad. One is an IT engineer and the other a telecommunications engineer. Their firm works with power distribution companies and large industrial customers in India.
A July 2012 press release of the firm says,”The company implemented the first smart grid pilot in the country in 2010,in participation with Government of Gujarat and Torrent Power”.
The daughter is a landscape architect who also did government projects in Bhuj and Alang. She got married in 2009 in a private ceremony in Ahmedabad. Her husband ran a tea lounge in Ahmedabad,which is now shut.
In his affidavit of 2011,Sharma alleged that his knowledge of a woman’s association with the Gujarat government was the reason he was being victimised by the Modi regime.
Around five-six months ago,Soni and his wife quietly moved out of Bhuj to Ahmedabad. “He was not keeping well and wanted to be with his sons. So he sold off his shop a few months ago,” a family member says. A new commercial complex is being built in place of Hem Jewellers now.
Soni was last seen in the city in September. “He keeps visiting Bhuj. He met me a couple of months ago and attended a meeting of the Rotary Club,” Tanna says. Soni,who is living with his younger son,has now become a member of the Ahmedabad Rotary Club.
For some three years,Soni’s daughter and her husband lived in an apartment in the upmarket Prahladnagar area of Ahmedabad. They moved out suddenly in the last week of October telling neighbours they were moving temporarily to another part of Ahmedabad.
Few doubt that Soni,or the local BJP,tripped up in releasing his letter absolving Modi. It irrevocably linked a ‘saheb’ who wanted a woman tailed in 2009,as talked about by Modi’s close aide Amit Shah in a taped conversation,as the CM himself.
Since then Soni has shot off more letters,requesting that a probe not be ordered into a personal matter. His family,however,has clammed up. When contacted,his son told The Indian Express,”I am based out of Delhi”. He refused to take questions on either his sister or his father’s press statement.