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Rahul Bajaj: An Extraordinary Life 

Thomas K Thomas | Updated on: Apr 10, 2022

The anecdotes, the historical context, and the business learnings make this book a perfect homage to Bajaj

Standing tall at 6 feet, Rahul Bajaj was a towering personality in Indian business, both figuratively and literally. He was known to speak truth to power famously questioning Amit Shah at an awards function when no industrialist dared to question the government. He single-handedly brought about a socio-economic change among the Indian middle class with ‘Hamara Bajaj’ scooters. He was also a member of the Bombay Club, an exclusive group of corporates from the city who opposed the 1991 economic reforms. 

All of these are well-known and widely reported stories about Rahul Bajaj. The first authorized biography by journalist and business historian, Gita Piramal, goes much beyond these familiar events to give deeper insight into the evolution of the industrialist and many interesting and lesser-known facts about his life. For example, we are told that the name, Rahul, was suggested to his mother by none other than Jawaharlal Nehru and that he loved junk food and his go-to evening snack was an entire plate of Budhani wafers and ketchup. Gita Piramal, who had a front-row seat to Bajaj’s life as she was close to the family in addition to being on the board of several Bajaj group companies, offers an authentic narrative of not just the iconic businessman but also juxtaposes the growth of India over the last 8 decades.

Rahul Bajaj’s childhood was influenced by the Freedom movement since the entire Bajaj clan was involved in the struggle for Independence. His grandfather, Jamnalal Bajaj, was associated with Mahatma Gandhi and his father, Kamalnayan Bajaj, stayed at Gandhi’s ashram, Sevagram, in Wardha for many years. Rahul Bajaj was only four years old when his mother, Savitri, was jailed for participating in the Quit India movement. The little boy saw his mother only two years later. Gandhian values and ethics formed a deep impression on Bajaj, influencing his life choices and business decisions. It influenced his move, along with his family, to Akurdi on the outskirts of Pune in 1964 when he joined Bajaj Auto. It was a few months after returning from Harvard Business School. In Akurdi, the Bajaj family lived an upper-middle-class life rather than the aristocratic life that they could easily afford. Rahul Bajaj’s children went to the local school with the children of factory workers. 

Muzzling Indian manufacturing

In the late 1960s and 1970s, when a young Rahul Bajaj was stepping up to take over Bajaj Auto from his father, the Government of India was muzzling Indian manufacturing with the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices (MRTP) Act, 1969. This repressive piece of legislation limited Bajaj Auto’s production to only 48,000 scooters per year, even though the company had the capacity, financial resources, manufacturing capability, and the sales and distribution network to produce much more. Bajaj spent much of his early years at the company walking the corridors of Udyog Bhavan, meeting bureaucrats, representing and defending Bajaj Auto before the MRTP Commission. In his own words - “ Even if giving money could have bought a licence, I can categorically say we did not give any ministers or any bureaucrat a single rupee to get a licence.” Over time, the company was able to gradually increase its licensed capacity. 

However, the wait for the Bajaj Chetak was 10 long years, leading to a flourishing black market for those who did not want to wait and were willing to pay a premium. During the Indira Gandhi years, it was doubly difficult for the Bajaj family because Kamalnayan Bajaj had aligned himself with the opposition when the Congress party split in 1969. Also, his brother and Rahul Bajaj’s uncle, Ramakrishna, had a less than ideal relationship with the then Prime Minister ( Chapter 15: The Third Karta: 1972-94).

Davos sojourns

The biography is not written in a linear chronology but each chapter focuses on a particular personal or professional aspect of Rahul Bajaj’s life. This is good for those readers who do not want to read the book from cover to cover. Each chapter can be read on its own. For example, there are separate chapters on the story of the iconic Bajaj Chetak ( Chapter 17: Mobility for the Middle Class- the Chetak 1971-2021); the beginnings at Akurdi ( Chapter 7: Akurdi 1959) and the 1991 reforms, and the infamous Bombay Club ( Chapter 26: The Bombay Club and All That Jazz: 1991-93). We also get to know about Rahul Bajaj’s stints in the Rajya Sabha, his participation at the World Economic Forum at Davos (he was the first Indian industrialist to start going to Davos) and the Bajaj group’s venture into the insurance business. 

Rahul Bajaj: An Extraordinary Life by Gita Piramal
Publisher: Penguin Random House India
Pages: 369
Cover Price: Rs 799

The book includes perspectives from Rahul Bajaj’s close family members in their own words. Gita Piramal quotes extensively from the autobiographies of both his mother (Savitri Bajaj:  God’s Plan Works) and grandmother (Jankidevi Bajaj:  My Life’s Journey) to provide a picture of his childhood upbringing. His wife Rupa’s recollections feature prominently throughout the book - from the time they started dating in 1960, living together at Harvard Business School, and finally settling down in Akurdi. We hear from his sons, Rajiv and Sanjiv, daughter Sunaina and the entire Bajaj clan - from his son-in-law, daughters-in-law, grandchildren, cousins, sisters-in-law, nephews, and nieces we get to know the private persona of Rahul Bajaj ( Chapter 43: The Fourth Karta: 1994-2021). The anecdotes, the historical context, and the business learnings make this book a perfect homage to Bajaj who passed away in February this year at the age of 83.

Click here to buy the book

Published on April 10, 2022
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