For many, Rahul Bajaj’s name was synonymous with the so-called Bombay Club industrialists, who sought a “level-playing field” against multinational companies after the 1991 reforms that slashed import tariffs and liberalised foreign investments. Bajaj Chetak and Bajaj Super scooters had a free run on Indian roads through the 1970s and 1980s, with multi-year waiting periods and the nearest lone competitor rival only in name. But Rahul Bajaj, who passed away on Saturday aged 83, wasn’t the usual protectionist industrialist thriving in a seller’s market. His vehicles were robust, met high production quality standards and appealed to consumers. For them, the Chetak was the ultimate “hamara” scooter on which the entire family could ride. Bajaj wanted to produce more, but the governments of those times denied capacity expansions on the most perverse socialist grounds — that his company was a monopoly. Bajaj also totally indigenised the production of the company’s scooters after an initial technical collaboration with Italy’s Piaggio, besides making it the world’s fourth-largest two-wheeler manufacturer by the early 1990s.
While his scooters symbolised ordinary middle-class aspirations of the Amol Palekar-Farooq Shaikh years, Bajaj should be equally credited for keeping his eyes on the road ahead. Bajaj Auto tied up with Kawasaki to manufacture motorcycles in the mid-1980s, along with Hero-Honda and TVS-Suzuki. It also launched a 50cc single-gear Bajaj Sunny in 1990, aimed at 16-18 year olds who couldn’t handle heavier scooters or bikes. It pained him, though, when his son Rajiv decided to exit the scooter section in 2009. In hindsight, the senior Bajaj may not have been entirely wrong. The erstwhile king of scooters couldn’t partake in the gearless scooter revolution led by the likes of Honda Activa and TVS Jupiter. These targeted individual buyers, particularly women, craving for mobility, unlike the earlier “family” scooter. Rajiv did, however, turn Bajaj Auto into India’s second-biggest and the world’s third-largest motorcycle manufacturer. The other son Sanjiv has made Bajaj Finserv into a leading financial services concern with a market capitalisation even exceeding Bajaj Auto’s.
Rahul Bajaj, at the end of the day, will be remembered as someone who spoke his mind — not only to his son, but also as a Bombay Club member to then finance minister Manmohan Singh and to the present home minister Amit Shah. When he told the latter of the need to create an environment where businessmen could “openly criticise” the government and still be appreciated, he was voicing a concern that few of his ilk dared express. It was a concern of a man who truly believed in “Make in India”, recognised the importance of adopting global industry best practices, and stuck to his knitting without diversifying into unrelated businesses.