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TRIBUTE

Rahul Bajaj: Unparalleled legacy

Print edition : Mar 11, 2022 T+T-
Rahul Bajaj.

Rahul Bajaj.

Rahul Bajaj,   chairman of Bajaj Auto Ltd, and Rajiv Bajaj, managing director, at the launch of the Probiking showroom in Pune on September 6, 2005.

Rahul Bajaj, chairman of Bajaj Auto Ltd, and Rajiv Bajaj, managing director, at the launch of the Probiking showroom in Pune on September 6, 2005.

Rahul Bajaj, chairman of the Bajaj Group, built his two- and three-wheeler brands around the Indian sentiment and took bold business decisions to create a conglomerate that ranks among the top in India.

VERY few industrialists in India have been able to combine the running of a corporate conglomerate and socialist ideology. Rahul Bajaj was one of them. The 83-year-old chairman emeritus of the Bajaj Group of companies, who passed away after a prolonged illness on February 12, was a unique entrepreneur known for his ability to steer his ship with a rare sensitivity towards people and country. A pioneer, a visionary and Indian industry’s conscience, Rahul Bajaj’s steadfast faith in the domestic industry set him apart from his peers. His towering presence in the country’s business landscape will be missed.

Rahul Bajaj’s esteemed lineage would have had a bearing on his belief system. His grandfather Jamnalal Bajaj, who founded the Bajaj group, was a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi and a significant leader in the freedom struggle. Rahul Bajaj’s father, Kamalnayan Bajaj, expanded the family business during the early years of independence and was instrumental in laying the foundation for India’s self-sufficiency goal. Rahul Bajaj took over the reins of the group in 1965 and, taking his grandfather and father’s legacy forward, navigated the company through the period of Nehruvian socialism and later the licence raj to eventually create his own legacy—a multinational empire that diversified into the finance, insurance, lighting and steel sectors. The Bajaj Group today has a market capitalisation of over Rs.8.4 lakh crore and is among India’s 10 most prominent business houses.

Every obituary that appeared in newspapers on his passing used the word fearless. Rahul Bajaj was fearless at several levels. He took bold yet calculated business decisions that helped build the company to its present status. He decided that the group would not give up when the Indira Gandhi government stopped its international collaboration with Piaggio to produce the Vespa scooter. Bajaj knew India needed an affordable vehicle and capitalised on the company’s ability to produce one. He worked through a legal battle with Piaggio and produced the Bajaj Chetak. Such was the success of the scooter that there was a 10-year waiting period for the vehicle. He then fought vigorously during the restrictive 1970s licence period to meet the demand. When Japan’s Honda group sought entry into India in the 1980s, Rahul Bajaj was firm that the government should only allow the technology to enter and that manufacturing should be done locally.

The Chetak held a monopoly in the market for several years. Corporate commentators say that although the company had a firm grip over the two- and three-wheeler segments, Rahul Bajaj as chairman of the group never compromised on quality, design, functionality and integrity. By entering the international market in the 1980s, the Bajaj Group became one of India’s first home-grown companies to become a global name.

Rahul Bajaj had his ear to the ground as he went about building his brands around the Indian sentiment. The iconic “Hamara Bajaj” slogan for various Bajaj two-wheelers will forever be etched in the minds of at least two generations of Indians. If the Chetak scooter gave the aspiring salaried Indian a feeling of achievement, the zippy Sunny scooter, which was launched two decades later, gave Indian girls their much-needed ticket to independence. The Pulsar motorbike appealed to the middle-class consumers who found the poor quality of public transport a hindrance to their daily commute.

Known to be a nationalist, much before the word assumed the connotations it has today, Rahul Bajaj was not entirely supportive of the economic reforms that were rolled out in the 1990s. During India’s critical transition into becoming an open market, Rahul Bajaj lost no opportunity to voice his apprehensions over allowing foreign companies into the Indian market. As a member of the “Bombay Club”—a group that included C.K. Birla, Lala Bharat Ram of the Shriram Group and a few other top industrialists—he said the government should provide a level playing field for Indian and foreign businesses. For this Bajaj was often labelled a “protectionist” and “anti-foreign business”. He did not deny it but neither did he claim that he was against liberalisation. His contemporaries say that he was pro-modernisation and strongly believed that Indian business had the ability to be a big player in manufacturing in the global arena. Rahul Bajaj, like many others of his generation, held on to the principle that India’s way forward would be through the development of industry, which could generate massive employment that would obviously have a ripple effect and lead to a higher standard of living for Indians. Rahul Bajaj was singularly responsible for Pune evolving into an auto belt. He lived with his family on the Bajaj factory campus at Akurdi. Both his children were educated at a local school in line with his ideology that they should be one with the workers. Rahul Bajaj went to St. Stephens College in Delhi and was an alumnus of the Harvard Business School.

Fearless and forthright

Forthright on public platforms, Rahul Bajaj was known to question and put ministers and bureaucrats on the spot when it came to policy decisions on Indian industry. The following aresome of the famous Bajaj moments: In 2002, a few months after the Gujarat riots, when the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) was hosting Narendra Modi, at the time Gujarat’s Chief Minister, Rahul Bajaj asked Modi during question time whether Gujarat was safe for investors. He took a hardline position at the 2003 World Trade Organisation conference in Cancun, where he fought for the protection of Indian agriculture.

More recently, in 2019, at a high-powered meeting attended by Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, he told Amit Shah: “You are doing good work, but if we criticise you, there is no confidence that you will appreciate that. I may be wrong. But we all feel that.” He added: “In UPA2 [United Progressive Alliance’s second term in office], we could criticise anyone….” The comment shocked the audience, but needless to say, it was an example of Rahul Bajaj’s fearless personality. In a climate under which even the most powerful industrialists have capitulated to the present ruling regime’s ways, Rahul Bajaj stood by his convictions.

While several Indian industries, especially in the manufacturing and engineering sector, found it hard to cope without protectionist policies, the Bajaj Group steered through under his able leadership. The company is ranked the world’s fourth largest two- and three-wheeler manufacturer. The Bajaj brand has expanded to Latin America, Africa, West Asia and South and South-East Asia.

Rahul Bajaj was the chairman of Indian Airlines in 1986. He was honoured with the Padma Bhushan in 2001. He was the CII president in 1979 and 1999, leading the country through two tumultuous economic periods. Rahul Bajaj was a Rajya Sabha member from 2006 to 2010. In 2005, he handed over the reins of the company to his son Rajiv Bajaj. The group faced a difficult situation following a family feud in 2009, with Rahul Bajaj and his brother parting ways. The doyen of Indian industry, Rahul Bajaj has left a strong and unparalleled legacy.