Rahul Bajaj: India Inc loses a voice that spoke fearlessly, for business and values

A LION IS now at rest. Veteran industrialist Rahul Bajaj, who died at the age of 83 on Saturday, championed India Inc.’s business like no other – one of the many reasons he strode across India’s industrial landscape like a colossus for more 50 years old.

After assuming leadership of the Bajaj Group in 1965, Rahul – who was appointed by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru – led it for four decades and built a global manufacturing business, before handing over the keys to Bajaj Auto to his son Rajiv Bajaj in 2005. During his very lifetime, Rahul’s ‘Hamara Bajaj’ not only evoked nationalism, but also empowered and transformed the lives of millions of middle-class Indians. If Bajaj “Sunny” gave wings to the free-spirited young girls of a newly liberalized India, the company’s motorcycles became the favorite product of Indian youth – anticipating demographic change.

Today, the business empire, comprising Bajaj Auto, Bajaj Finance, Bajaj Finserv and Bajaj Holdings and Investment Ltd, has a combined market capitalization of over Rs 8.4 lakh crore.

After PV Narasimha Rao bit the political bullet in 1991 and penned the first chapter of India’s economic reforms, Bajaj, unlike several other major groups including the Modis, Mafatlals, Singhanias and Thapars, held firm. While Rahul Bajaj led the Bombay Club – a group of leading industrialists then including HS Singhania, Lala Bharat Ram and CK Birla – to demand protection for domestic industry, he did not stop modernizing. “He never let these arguments get in the way of developing globally competitive products,” said Naushad Forbes, co-chairman of Pune-headquartered Forbes Marshall and a director on the board of Bajaj Holdings.

Expressing his condolences, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “Shri Rahul Bajaj Ji will be remembered for his remarkable contributions to the world of commerce and industry. Beyond business, he was passionate about community service and was a great conversationalist. Saddened by his passing. Condolences to his family and friends. Om Shanthi.

“He was a very unique person. He was both a competitor and a friend. He was also a friend of my father and he considered him his guru. He had very clear values, a strong differentiation of good and evil and was an institution builder. Not only did he build his business, but he was also a great industry leader,” said Sunil Kant Munjal, Chairman of Hero Enterprise. “He was not shy about showing a mirror to anyone, regardless of position and was a simple and fearless individual,” he said.

Months after the Gujarat riots of 2002, when the Confederation of Indian Industry was then hosting Chief Minister Modi in New Delhi, Rahul Bajaj pointedly asked him if Gujarat was safe for investors during the session “Question and responnse”.

Most recently, in his speech attended by Union Home Minister Amit Shah, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and Railways and Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal in audience in November 2019, he spoke . Gathering top industrialists including Mukesh Ambani, Kumar Mangalam Birla, Sunil Bharti Mittal among others at an ET Awards event, Bajaj said, “None of our industrial friends will talk, I will say openly… An environment will have to be created… In UPA II, we could take advantage of anyone… You do a good job but despite that, we don’t have the confidence that you will appreciate if we openly criticize.

Bajaj, who has described himself as born “anti-establishment”, said what other industrialists feared to say. Responding to his concerns, Shah said no one has to worry, but if you say there is a certain type of atmosphere, then “we will have to make efforts to improve the atmosphere,” Shah said.

Bajaj also flagged the issue of lynchings. “It creates a hawaa — intolerance ki hawaa hai — hum darte hain… kuch cheezon ko hum bolna nahi chahte hain par dekhte hain ki koi condemned he nahi hua abhi tak (It creates an environment of intolerance and we are afraid. We don’t want say some things, but we see that so far no one has been convicted),” Bajaj said.

Business leaders said India’s business doyen will be missed for his intellectual honesty and candor. As president of CII for two terms – 1979-80 and 1999-2000 – he led the industry through two crucial periods.

“I heard him speak many times in Indian industry and there were times when there couldn’t be anyone more inspiring because he expressed his belief in India and its industries. He was someone who believed that if something was right to say or do, it should be said or done because it was the right thing to do. I think we need more people like this,” Naushad Forbes said.

According to TVS Motor Chairman, Venu Srinivasan, he was among the few stars who created the Indian automobile industry. “He was a pioneer who established a culture of quality and technology. He defended great integrity in business and remained faithful to his principles. Rahul played key roles in industry bodies around the world like the World Economic Forum and CII and was highly respected. He will be greatly missed,” Srinivasan said.

Many believe that Bajaj’s contribution to India is unparalleled. His efforts to promote local manufacturing helped build the foundation of Aatmanirbhar Bharat for decades. “It is for me the personal loss of a good friend whom I have known for almost 50 years. He was one of the most dynamic and outspoken businessmen of his time. He created an empire and passed it on to the next generation to grow and nurture. I have always admired him for being a passionate and fearless voice of the industry and I will miss his presence,” said Hemendra Kothari, President, DSP Investment Managers.

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