”M.S. Dhoni, is a close friend and I was incredibly hurt when someone gave a rape threat to his five-year-old baby girl who is part of my family. I said enough of this toxic hate. Bajaj Auto does not endorse hate mongering in society and a strong brand is the foundation on which you build a business,” says Rajiv Bajaj, 53, managing director of Bajaj Auto, a giant in India Inc.
Bajaj became the first industrial biggie to withdraw advertising from three “news channels” which indulge in “toxic hate mongering”. Bajaj’s decision has made other brands follow suit. Parle products have also said they will not advertise in channels, which broadcast toxic aggressive content. In a free-wheeling exclusive interview with me for Gulf News, Bajaj was the rarity, an India Inc. biggie honest, unafraid to speak his mind and when I described him as a “Lone Ranger”, he chuckled and said it was not although a wrong take. Bajaj has always been candid in a system, where top industrialists line up to sing paeans to the government and vie with each other to give the government 10/10 on every Union budget.
I ask him if he ever watched the slugfest, which is news channels in India. Bajaj says a firm no, stressing he does not consume newspapers either because his peace of mind and equanimity are extremely important to him. “I have a friend, who I will not name because he will not like it, told me when I was upset about Dhoni’s daughter and the way Amitabh Bachchan was wished death on social media when he was suffering from COVID-19 that you can do something about this. Stop funding this hate. To me it is a wise decision because my child, my brother’s children can’t inherit an India and a society where such hate festers. It was a simple choice and I made it,” says Bajaj characteristically underplaying his decision.
Bajaj gives another reason “My mother Rupa Bajaj was a very quiet and strong lady. When I was 12 there was some industrial unrest in the plant and my father was surrounded by agitating workers. A lady called Heera Bai used to look after me and my brother. I saw her son, who worked in the plant, also agitating. Heera Bai was almost like a mother to me. When I saw her son I was confused - had my father done something wrong? My mother understood and said there is still a small voice you should always listen to and that is called your conscience. If in life you wonder what to do, just listen to it. I have always been guided by this,” said Bajaj.
Bajaj had made up his mind at the age of 12 that he would remake the burnt auto plant office, which he enjoyed visiting with his father. This Dussehra that dream of the 12-year-old Rajiv will come true. Bajaj is also the rarity in India - an industrialist who has never met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in an era when most other biggies make quiet pilgrimages to South block and the PMO. Bajaj says it’s just never happened. For the Bajaj Qute, India’s first quadricycle, when what Rajiv describes as “competition” was derailing plans for six years, Nitin Gadkari, Union minister stepped in and helped with the clearances after Bajaj said “make in India” was “mad in India”.
Bajaj says he has never had blowback for speaking his mind. I ask him about being the only industrialist who criticised the ill-advised demonetisation decision of the Modi government, which extinguished 85 per cent of India’s currency overnight. Bajaj explains that he lost his father-in-law during the same time in 2016 and when he wanted to give some cash gifts to the nursing staff who had taken care of him in the hospital, he came up short. “I thought if we are having so much trouble imagine how less fortunate people must be suffering,” he says. Bajaj is a health freak committed to Yoga and homeopathy. Finally, I ask Bajaj if he will ever enter politics, his father Rahul Bajaj has been a Member of Parliament and his family was an important part of India’s freedom struggle. Bajaj chuckles and says if he was a politician he would end up suffering from constipation, but adds a “never say never” proviso.
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A decision that was triggered by a rape threat to Dhoni’s daughter is incomplete without Abhinav Bindra, India’s only Individual gold medalist, take on Bajaj. Bindra is an independent director on the Bajaj Auto board and says: “The reason I admire him the most is his emotional intelligence. He has led from the front in speaking up on issues pertinent to society. Choosing not endorse TV channels that spread hate may be a drop in the ocean but, it is a significant drop.”