Rahul Bajaj
Eminent industrialist and former chairman of the Bajaj group, Rahul Bajaj, passed away on February 12 Image Credit: Gulf News

I have never ridden a scooter in my life yet the line “Hamara Bajaj” — an earworm that was ubiquitous in our lives. When I told Rahul Bajaj this, he laughed his big hearty laugh and said, “Come to Pune. I will take you for a memorable spin on the scooter and show you our scooter plant.”

Bajaj, 83, left us last week soon after the passing of Lata Mangeshkar. These days in India we don’t make giants like them. Bajaj had in a huge measure a back bone which ensured that he was the rarest of the rare industrialists in India, who always spoke his mind, whichever the government in power. Bajaj did not pull his punches whether the audience was Dr Manmohan Singh or Narendra Modi.

Bajaj also had a huge pride in his product, ensuring even the in the days of quotas and the licences permit raj that has products were world beaters. A student of the Harvard Business school, Bajaj had a view on every political and national issue and his take was always in India’s best interest.

Bajaj knew he best epitomised his brand and when I asked for a television interview and whether he would be game to put his wife on the back seat while he drove, he smiled and said if I can persuade Rupa (Rahul Bajaj's wife, Rupa Bajaj, 1961–2013), why not but, you will have to do it in Pune I am not wasting money flying down my wife to Delhi.

Bajaj was the rarest of the rare industrialists in India, who always spoke his mind, whichever the government in power. Bajaj did not pull his punches whether the audience was Dr Manmohan Singh or Narendra Modi


A frank, warm persona

When talks did the rounds that Bajaj was funding Mamata Banerjee’s agitation against the Nano plant in Singur, I asked him point blank. “Me funding an agitation? The whole world knows how kanjoos (thrifty) I am! No chance of me putting my money to non-productive use. Swati, please write in big bold type I am proud to be a kanjoos.”

Not a lot remained to be said after that and I promptly got the interview printed.

Currently with billionaires who flaunt humongous lifestyles, complete with long haul private aircraft, here was a billionaire saying he was a “kanjoos” perhaps the reason he could connect with the Indian consumer who also do not like to waste money.

Every year when the Union Budget is presented, India Inc dutifully does the rounds of the television channels and publicly gives the finance minister 11/10 when they score the “historic” budget.

During one such post budge interview, I asked Bajaj pointedly why the grades beyond A were given. He replied promptly that it was nothing but public relations and a fear of the all powerful government. He said no government liked to hear the truth.

When I asked him about the budget ritual and how it made less and less of an impact on a liberalised economy, he was again prompt to agree, laugh and said, “Come on, you are such a negative killjoy journalist. You should let us have our day when we dress up and pontificate”.

Face of Indian business

I remember his small Delhi office and the never ending cups of coffee when Bajaj — like the gifted raconteur he was — holding forth on everyone from political gossip to his sons fights. Bajaj became the face of Indian business as the most high profile member of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII).

Bajaj was also the face of India in the annual Davos World Economic Forum, not because of simple networking but, as he told me, ‘hearing new ideas and ensuring that India got the best possible exposure’ — that was his unsaid, quiet and fierce patriotism.

Every Indian industrialist now (with a few notable exceptions) has a small army of publicists and PR folk but Bajaj was different and very accessible once he knew you. Bajaj had one of the sharpest understanding of Indian politics and a throw away remark could prove be prescient. You just had to listen carefully.

Bajaj was one of the founders of the anti-liberalisation Bombay Club because he was convinced that India was not yet ready for cut throat competition. You could disagree and he would passionately try and convince you.

Represented a different India

For a self proclaimed “kanjoos”, Bajaj did a huge amount of charity but, refused to talk about it — another very rare quality which set him apart from his peers in India Inc. He would loudly ask if funding some NGO would get him in to trouble with the government but then quietly do it anyway.

These days you see India Inc as very quiet men in suits, afraid to make waves. Bajaj was clearly never going to be like that. He was extremely forthright, with a voice that boomed across the boardroom.

Bajaj represented a different India where billionaires could still identify with ordinary folk and a boldface a tag line which every Indian has hummed under her breath.

Bajaj represented the best of India Inc. Both his sons Rajeev and Sanjeev have inherited his values. The legacy continues.