Great men and women can generally be divided into two groups: There are the helicopter-people, those who see the whole landscape and make sense of the big picture for us lesser mortals. And there are those who delve into the details, who make sure that each piece is deeply and richly understood in all its nuance. God, we know, lies in the details. Rahul Bajaj was unique in his mastery of both the 30,000-foot view and the small detail. His ability to see the big picture was legendary, as he connected the success of Indian industry with his knowledge of Indian history and his connections around the world. But he was equally at home with the minutest detail. As the Bajaj Group Chairman, he could spot the misplaced comma that changed the meaning of a board minute. I have personally experienced the detail in planning a dinner we hosted for the CII National Council, down to the last bit of the menu and the variety and brands of alcoholic beverages.
Many have written of Rahul’s amazing success in creating some of our most valuable companies, his essential contributions in building CII and other institutions, of his deep integrity, of his fearlessness, of his being the articulate voice of and for Indian industry and India in forums around the world. Underlying this life of amazing achievement was a warm, generous, forthright and principled human being who was a lot of fun. I know no one else who could warm up a room as quickly by walking into it. His entry brought zing to a board meeting, sparkle to a dinner party, interest to a conversation, and depth to an exchange of letters. His forthright nature made some fear him, but he was one of the most open people I have met. If you pushed back and argued with him, he would listen and respect you. If you rolled over with your paws in the air of the prevailing political winds, he would, quite correctly, ignore you. The only area where we differed was in the role of protection for Indian industry. When I wrote one of my articles criticising tariff increases, he wrote to me saying he disagreed, but also saying he liked the article and was glad I had written it.
He was kind and generous. This showed in the generosity of the Bajaj companies and trusts (the group consistently ranks in the top 10 CSR spenders in the country). He chaired the CSR committees of the companies, knowing in detail which project was being funded and why, and how it was performing.
His forthrightness showed in the expression of his principles. This was his most publicly appealing quality. His principles showed in the way he operated, using a Skoda car he kept in Delhi as he did not want to show off when he went to Parliament, refusing a personal attendant till health left him no choice and not being surrounded by assistants to carry his papers and bags.
For me, and for all those who knew Rahul well, his most endearing attribute was his sense of fun. Even at 75, he was among the last to leave a party and the last on the dance floor. He loved telling stories that had an aside, then an aside to the aside. But Rahul would get back to the main story. This takes a very powerful mind and concentration of unique proportions.
I have dozens of fond memories of his sense of fun and engagement, but my warmest recollection is the CII President’s Retreat in 2017 in Bhutan. We were a small group, which included Rahul Bajaj and Bodie Nanda, who many refer to as CII’s founder-president. Rahul and Bodie were colleagues in CII for 50 years. The weekend was one long tennis match of playful insults, flying back and forth between these two wonderful human beings. If Bodie was CII’s founder-president, Rahul was its “owner”, a title he disliked. We meant “owner” not only because he is the only person ever to be president of CII twice, and has been its most generous and engaged past-president. He was the owner of the soul of CII, the one who ensured that we, as office-bearers, stayed true to our principle of speaking for India first, then for Indian industry, then for CII, and never for our own firms. And, that all the work we did within the institution as members and secretariat reflected that purpose. Rahul may have gone, but his principles must always be with us. All of us who see ourselves as his successors must be worthy of what he espoused.
This column first appeared in the print edition on February 15, 2022 under the title ‘One who joined the dots’. The writer is co-chairman, Forbes Marshall; past president, CII; chairman of Centre for Technology Innovation and Economic Research and Ananta Aspen Centre