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How Rahul Bajaj's life captures the story of a changing India

The late industrialist's three children discuss their father's unusual approach to work and why they think he is a symbol of our collective evolution

Rahul Bajaj with the family’s pet dog at their Akurdi home in the late 1990s.
Rahul Bajaj with the family’s pet dog at their Akurdi home in the late 1990s. (Photographs from Bajaj Group Archives)

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Every national icon tells a story much larger than themselves, a story of a country and its evolution. And so it is with Rahul Bajaj, the chairman emeritus of the Bajaj group, one of India’s oldest and leading business groups, who died in February at the age of 83. Bajaj Auto, the group’s flagship automotive company, founded in 1945, is among the world’s most valuable two-wheeler companies and Bajaj Finserv, the group’s relatively newer business, is a financial services powerhouse. But Bajaj was much more than an industry chief; his life captures the story of a changing India over the course of more than eight decades.

The Bajaj family’s relationships with national politics date back to pre-independence India. “His (Rahul’s) grandfather was among (Mahatma) Gandhi’s earliest colleagues and friends after his return from South Africa; his father, Kamalnayan Bajaj, followed suit and lived in the Wardha Ashram in Maharashtra through much of his life, and his mother, Savitri, was active in the freedom struggle, including the suffering of jail terms. Consequently, Rahul grew up in a traditional Marwari business family but imbued with the Gandhian ethics of truth, austerity, honesty, kindness and respect for others,” writes economist Rakesh Mohan in the foreword to a new biography, Rahul Bajaj: An Extraordinary Life, by Gita Piramal (the writer’s mother).

Gandhian austerity and Marwari frugality were trademark Bajaj attributes; important success factors in a resource-constrained developing economy and manufacturing company. Piramal cites an early anecdote when a 20-something Bajaj took 3,000 from the family account, but failed to explain it as promised. He was sternly told off by his uncle, “a lesson Bajaj says he has never forgotten”, she writes. Much later, even as company chairman, he remained vigilant about costs and expenses. One could not spend 5 in his factory without taking his permission, one commentator jokingly remarks in the biography.

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Perhaps the most visible parallel between Bajaj and India revolves around the idea of freedom. Just as a newly independent India enjoyed political freedom in the 1950s and 1960s, middle-class India came to enjoy some freedom of mobility in the 1970s, of being able to commute on one’s own terms on the iconic Chetak scooter—if one could buy it (the waiting period in the era of the licence permit raj, with caps on production, ran to 10 years). Its advertising campaign with the tag line Hamara Bajaj swept the company into branding folklore. “If the Indian middle-class man were to be reborn as a product, chances are it would be as the Bajaj scooter…it blended perfectly with how we lived and what we believed in…the scooter spoke for us and our way of life like nothing else,” says social commentator Santosh Desai.

The final parallel between Bajaj and India relates to the challenge of Darwinian adaptation. India was thrust into liberalisation due to a foreign exchange crisis in the early 1990s, and had to adapt its national economic policies. Similarly, in the late 1990s, as market preference shifted towards motorbikes, Bajaj realised he would have to course-correct and invest in motorcycle manufacturing, not an area of company expertise. As his biographer notes, “Bajaj Auto needed a reboot.”

Nor was he keen at the time to enter the insurance industry. “Under pressure from (cousin) Niraj, with great reluctance, Bajaj finally agreed to explore the general insurance business,” observes the book. While Bajaj went on to create tremendous value in both sectors, the anecdotes illustrate that change can sometimes be arduous, and driven by the macro-economic environment rather than internal drivers, for a company or a country.

Rahul Bajaj with his wife Rupa and children, in front of their Akurdi home, in the late 1970s.
Rahul Bajaj with his wife Rupa and children, in front of their Akurdi home, in the late 1970s.

This comparison of parallel journeys between Bajaj and India may lead a lay reader to believe that Bajaj was simply a product of his times—whether Gandhian-era austerity, middle-class mobility or economic liberalisation. Yet this is where he stands out. He always spoke out for his beliefs, contrary to zeitgeist. In 2019, for example, at a major awards event, in a roomful of corporate leaders, he raised “apprehensions” against the current government, including its ability “to accept criticism and its lack of action against mob lynching”, writes Piramal. “There is mistrust between the people who are in power and the people who are wealth-creators,” she quotes Bajaj as saying.

Every country needs a mirror to itself, and Rahul Bajaj played that role for decades. At a recent private event to launch the biography in Pune, his three children—Rajiv, managing director of Bajaj Auto, Sanjiv, MD of Bajaj Finserve, and Sunaina, director of the Kamalnayan Bajaj Hall and Art Gallery—sat down with Lounge to reminisce about working with him, growing up around him, and why they think he is a symbol of our collective evolution. Edited excerpts:

Rajiv, you worked with your father for over 30 years, starting on the shop floor with manufacturing. Take us back to that time.

Rajiv: I think the good thing was I had nothing in common with my father. He was trained as a lawyer, he had studied economics, he had been to business school. I was a mechanical engineer. If he dealt with numbers, I dealt with components. The first five years, I enjoyed applying everything I had learnt. I would go to his office twice, thrice a week, and say, “Come with me, I have something to show you”. He was not a product person but he always came, in his trademark safari suit. It could not have been comfortable on the shop floor; it was hot. No matter how small the improvement, he was appreciative. That is my first working memory of myself and my father.

Sanjiv, everyone associates Bajaj with two-wheelers. What was it like to diversify into financial services? What was the role he played in the business?

Sanjiv: Sometime around 2005, I was in Bajaj Auto, running exports. Investors told him the budding financial services companies needed to be hived off before they grew too big. He used to say it’s important but not urgent. In the background, a few of us started working on the details of the demerger process. I was quite confident that with India growing in those years at 7-8%, financial services was an opportunity. It took a while for him to be convinced because he always focused on sticking to what he did best. I had worked for 10 years at Bajaj Auto. Rajiv was firmly in the saddle. I saw this opportunity to build these companies out. By end-2007, I moved to financial services…. He provided us with fresh insights… He was chairman of these companies and we did a detailed quarterly review with him. He would pick issues we would not have looked at from a financial services perspective. People were happy to be in those reviews, they found the personal connect with him special and enjoyed being challenged. This was his way of adding value despite knowing that it was not his area of professional expertise.

Rajiv, Sunaina and Sanjiv at the launch of their father’s biography in Pune late last month.
Rajiv, Sunaina and Sanjiv at the launch of their father’s biography in Pune late last month.

Would you say this unusual approach to work made him a success?

Rajiv: What really defined him, and Sanjiv referred to that, was his razor-sharp focus to do one thing at one time really well. It’s that 10,000 hours of expertise that people talk about now. In the 1990s, his friends would advise him to diversify. Bajaj Auto was so successful, he had so much cash at his disposal, he had a great reputation. But he said diversification and fragmentation are two sides of the same coin; one runs the risk of becoming jack of all trades and master of none. In a very competitive marketplace, you will pay the price for that eventually. And that’s happened— a lot of so-called business groups that stretched themselves across different sectors have gone nowhere.

First, what was important about him was his focus on excellence, on being world-class, and putting every man, every minute, every rupee behind that effort. Second, I would say the word that describes him best is integrity…. integrity at work, integrity in personal life. The third thing, teamwork. He always thought about family. He had lots of friends, more than three of us put together. He was very popular in industry circles, whether CII (Confederation of Indian Industry) or Davos. In politics, he loved meeting all kinds of people from various parties. He enjoyed his tenure in the Rajya Sabha. Even the so-called Bombay Club was a team, whatever it was, it was a team of people. These three aspects of him— focus, integrity and being a team person—these were the pillars of his success.

Did he have a fun-loving side? Most of us know him as a serious person who built a legacy business.

Sunaina: When he was here in India working, we didn’t see that side of him. But whenever he travelled abroad, we saw a whole different him. We always went in large groups, with a lot of friends or family. That’s where I saw the fun-loving side of him, dancing, planning our meals, no inhibitions. He would just light up the room…. He had these one-liners, which were both witty and insightful. You know, do what you want, but be the best at it. You can’t build private heavens in public hell. The world needs more hybrids between a yogi and an entrepreneur… so many of these quotes. Very often, when I am doing something, it comes back to me. I think of what he would do in a particular situation, what he would tell me to do, what he would expect of me.

He’s described as a textbook leadership case, the kind you would learn about in business school. Are there lessons not just for the younger generation of the family but also for other aspiring business leaders?

Sanjiv: He was always thoroughly prepared. He never left work till his table was clear. And he never went to bed till he was ready for the next day, whether it was 400 pages of documents for a board meeting or a speech at an event. He could argue both points of view. Very often, at work that used to exasperate us. We would have put forward a point of view and even if it made sense, as he would concede later, he had to put out the other point of view. Now I can see that it was to make all of us think things through. This is what you learn in any good MBA school but applying it is not in any textbook. It came through his own experience, it came from his early years. He was born in 1938. He spent quite a few years in Wardha. He saw what was happening with Gandhiji, the freedom struggle. His mother was imprisoned by the British. After dinner, he would sit with his father for hours and talk. My grandfather (Kamalnayan Bajaj) was a very straightforward, bold person.

There is an anecdote in the book. In the late 1960s, after Indira Gandhi starts nationalising banks, a whole bunch of people from the Congress, including my grandfather, break away. He tells my father we could face pushback from the government. He offers to step down as chairman and director in all our companies. My father says, “No, you should do what you think is right. And if we have to suffer, we will.” I think those engagements with my grandfather, and with others in the freedom movement, and his own experience, helped build his unique character.

Sunaina: When they think of Papa, everyone thinks of his aggressive, outspoken, determined person. I don’t know if people realise that he was large-hearted and kind. He made time for people. One thing I have observed, no matter how many emails, messages, phone calls, he got in a day, he always returned them. Some would be random emails from people who didn’t know him. But he would make it a point to reply, which I don’t think most of us do. He was very much for connecting with people, be it family, friends, the community, the country at large.

Rahul Bajaj during a holiday in St Moritz, Switzerland, in the early 1990s.
Rahul Bajaj during a holiday in St Moritz, Switzerland, in the early 1990s. (Bajaj Group Archives)

Did he believe in the idea of business being a larger force, beyond individual profit?

Rajiv: Anything significant in life is not one dimensional. I will give you an example. When I joined in the 1990s, demand outstripped supply. My team and I applied ourselves to improving productivity. There was a lot of resistance, there was violence, there was a strike. At that time—and this was not just typical to Bajaj Auto but of industry in general—one would find a compromise with the unions because one wanted the show to go on. I told my father, no matter how long this takes, we are going to send the right signal, and he backed us 100%.

We were all called to (Shiv Sena founder) Bal Thackeray, the management, the unions. My father just said: “Here are the keys to the company. Aap hi manage karo.” There is this Sun Tzu wisdom—the first step to victory is to put yourself out of the possibility of defeat. It worked. It was immediately agreed that the troublemakers would be dismissed. Then, my father added that he would give each of the people dismissed an autorickshaw for an alternative source of income. It’s about doing the right thing with grace.

Sanjiv: He would speak his mind, but be fair. I will give you another example. When the government mandated the 2% CSR (corporate social responsibility) requirement, he was one of the most vociferous opponents but once it became clear that the law would go through, he ensured the money was well spent. He chaired the CSR committees across our companies. He advised NGOs about capability- building for fund-raising, to diversify their sources of funding. While he disagreed with the government on the issue of mandating CSR, once he took it up, he made sure it was well done.

We’ve talked about courage but what makes people seem authentic is moments of vulnerability. Can you share your experiences of how he tackled hard times?

Rajiv: The definition of courage I like is that courage is the ability to ignore your options. I will give you an example of the 1980s, when I was not part of the business, when Honda was planning to come to India. I have heard it from many people, including from my mother. He was very stressed because the 500-pound gorilla of the motorcycle world was coming to this market. Honda shortlisted three potential partners: Kinetic, Hero and us. Bajaj was their clear preference because it was the market leader. There were conditions, including that Bajaj could not export if it partnered with Honda. My father said, “How can you stop me from exporting my own products?” Most people would not have taken that stand. In terms of technology, quality, productivity, global distribution, Bajaj Auto in the 1980s, was nothing compared to what it is today. But he had the courage to ignore the option of the collaboration. He told his team, if trouble is coming in the form of global competition, let’s focus even more closely on the existing business. Someone said, if you want to lead the orchestra, turn your back to the audience. That’s what he did. And I think we played some pretty good music.

Sunaina: I would like to share something more personal. Nine years ago, when my mum had to go for her second aortic valve replacement, it was a very hard time for Papa. She was a very high-risk patient and most institutions abroad said they couldn’t do it. He was so emotionally affected but he didn’t let it go. I saw how he worked towards finding the best place for her, the kind of research he did.

Sanjiv: My mother passed away in 2013. She was his rock. They had this intellectual equation though they were different personalities. He was more outgoing, she was quieter but no less strong. No matter where he travelled, he would tell her about his day. Given his lifestyle, his stress, he had always thought he would go before her. Her death left him in disbelief. Since I stayed with him, I saw that for the first few months, he was lost. He spoke about it afterwards. We all lost but I think there’s a very big part of him that he lost that day.

Rajiv: Through all that, he held on to what he believed in and kept working. You know, if you visit our Chakan plant, you will first see a sign that says we are proud of our nation and we work to make our nation proud. Through his biography, you will see someone who put country, industry, society, family ahead of himself. Although he may not have said it in so many words, the message was very clear: Life is not about being someone, it is applying yourself and doing something important. That’s how you build buland Bharat ki buland tasveer.

Aparna Piramal Raje is a Mumbai-based author and columnist.

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