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A Man Much Ahead of His Time

A Man Much Ahead of His Time

Rahul Bajaj proudly wore the Indian badge and his sharp business mind led him to lay the foundation of a global empire a long time ago

Rahul Bajaj in his younger days, in his trademark safari suit and with the iconic Bajaj Chetak scooter  -- Photograph by Husain Fawzan Rahul Bajaj in his younger days, in his trademark safari suit and with the iconic Bajaj Chetak scooter -- Photograph by Husain Fawzan

Rahul Bajaj and I had a rather unusual relationship. He knew my father (the industrialist R.P. Goenka) well and addressed him as guru. The fact that I was much younger never mattered and he always reached out to me. I called him Rahul bhaiya and for me, it was a combination of respect and friendship.

Our families knew each other for a few generations and to that extent, this was a long and old connection. Rahul Bajaj used to come home often and have long conversations with my father on our group’s acquisitions. He was a man with a curious mind and the “why and what” always intrigued him. There are two or three incidents that come to mind immediately.

At one point, Rahul Bajaj wanted to acquire Ashok Leyland. He called on my father and I sat through the discussion. It was quite an experience just to watch the contrasting styles of the two gentlemen. On the one hand was my father whose decision-making was driven by a high proportion of gut and instinct. Then there was Rahul Bajaj whose approach was all about strategic direction and trying to understand what synergy could be possible with his existing business. Today, the latter’s approach is a done thing but this was from many years ago. Of course, the deal never went through and the Hindujas bought over Ashok Leyland.

The other one relates to a time when I was fresh out of MBA school. Inevitably, there is a sense of brashness that comes with young blood. Our group held a stake in Premier Automobiles Limited and to me, a hostile takeover of the company looked like a good idea. The discussions went through many prominent businessmen before reaching Indira Gandhi, then India’s Prime Minister. We were keen and my father spoke to Rahul Bajaj for his view. His advice was simple, and that was to stay away. “You will acquire the image of a bad boy. It will make you extremely unpopular and an untouchable,” was said quite clearly. In retrospect, it was very sensible counsel and we did not make the move.

Many things remain unique about Rahul Bajaj and one definitely relates to Davos. India was still not a prominent economic force but that never deterred him. He proudly wore the Indian badge and his parties remained unmissable events. It had the top global executives in full attendance and for us from India, this was incredible. Here we saw a great ambassador of the country and he held his own quite easily.

Speaking of being Indian, his safari suits were again very different. Rahul Bajaj was an early adopter of it and be it in white, cream or slightly pinkish, he wore it everywhere. In later years, he moved to traditional Indian attire and that too sat well on him.

He was a man of many interests and owned one of the largest Husain artworks. In the early 1990s, he paid a whopping Rs 18 lakh for it. I remember the time he came to me for my opinion. I was stunned since the highest amount for any work then was Rs 8 lakh. It found a place on the wall of his room in the Akurdi office. Today, that must be worth Rs 50 crore! The interesting thing was Rahul Bajaj was not really fond of art, nor was he a big spender.

His ability to speak his mind is known and he did have a spine. That was one part of the persona but the sharp business mind was something to watch. A lot of business groups were getting into the diversification game in a big way. When my father asked him what his plans were, it revolved around being focussed on two-wheelers. Today, focus and core competence are part of modern business but again, we are speaking of a different era.

Rahul Bajaj led a simple life and one with sound value systems. In Pune, he lived in the factory complex and his two sons went to the school that the workers’ kids attended. The only luxury he afforded himself was a private jet but that again was only for business convenience and not for leisure.

A conversation with him was 90-10 and I was more than happy to listen. There was never a dull moment and it was laced with his great humour. When I look at Rajiv and Sanjiv and what they have created, there is immense pride. After all, they have the Bajaj genes. To Rahul Bajaj’s cousins, what he said was the gospel truth.

Much before India spoke of going global, he invested a lot in R&D. It was with the objective of creating a global empire. Rahul Bajaj was a man much ahead of his time, apart from being loved and respected by all.

As told to Krishna Gopalan

Published on: Feb 19, 2022, 7:41 PM IST
Posted by: Arnav Das Sharma, Feb 18, 2022, 1:07 PM IST