Gita Piramal’s Rahul Bajaj: An Extraordinary Life review: The Rahul Bajaj legacy

Gita Piramal’s biography of one of India’s greatest industrialists is the story of Indian industry, pre- and post-liberalisation, with a spotlight on the role of policy

Published - June 03, 2022 12:05 pm IST

Gita Piramal’s subtitle of her biography of Rahul Bajaj is perfect: “An extraordinary life”. Rahul’s life was truly extraordinary — as an industrialist, as a citizen of India and the world, and as a human being.

I got to know Rahul well only in the last few years. So I found the details of his early life most interesting — his relationship with his father, Kamalnayan, his courtship of Rupa who was Maharashtrian — “In my [extended and conservative Marwari] family, it was probably the first love and inter-caste marriage...”; his days as a student at St. Stephen’s, Law College and Harvard Business School.

Kamalnayan was a three-time Lok Sabha member from Wardha representing the Congress and engaged extensively in debate with Nehru on economic policy. This comes through clearly, and was foundational for Rahul’s own subsequent battles with Indira Gandhi and her policies. The bulk of the book is on Rahul as an industrialist, who made Bajaj a household name. Piramal perceptively invites us to look at his life through the three prisms of leadership, the relationship between business, government and society, and the value of leaving a lasting legacy.

Family matters

Rahul was deeply proud of his family legacy, and conscious of carrying on a proud national tradition set by grandfather Jamnalal, father Kamalnayan and uncle Ramkrishnan; of being named “Rahul” by Jawaharlal Nehru. He had an eye for detail that was truly exceptional. Piramal recounts how in 1960, at age 22, while training at the erstwhile Bajaj Electricals, his father made him a director of Bajaj Auto which was about to go public: “The youngest board member asked a lot of questions, read every word of the prospectus, and edited the paperwork with the accuracy of an expert proofreader”. Replace ‘youngest’ with ‘oldest’ and this would read as a description of Rahul at a board meeting six decades on!

The relationship between government and industry comes through again and again. Rahul’s story is the story of Indian industry from Nehru on. The role of policy, especially under Indira Gandhi, in thwarting the ambitions of a great industrialist and holding industry back is a repeated theme. Many countries have somewhat perverse economic policies; in India we perfected their perverseness. Only here were there maximum limits of what one could produce, as bigness in itself was suspect. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, Bajaj Auto, as India’s most efficient two-wheeler manufacturer, asked for permission to expand which was either refused or ignored. It was only under the Janata government of 1977, and a decade later under Rajiv Gandhi, that things changed. A protected market also meant no international competition and little incentive to invest in product development. Bajaj Auto stumbled as the market moved from scooters to motorcycles, but the inherent strength of the company combined with fresh and younger leadership enabled it to thrive post-liberalisation — in spite of greatly increased competition.

Speaking truth to power

Rahul’s principles and forthrightness come through again and again. He stepped in as chairman of Mukand Iron and Steel when Viren Shah went to jail and, later, became Governor of West Bengal; and then stepped out as soon as Shah was back. He asked the insurance regulator to approve a payment to a JV partner as the alternative was to do it illegally offshore (he approved it). He spoke out after the post-Godhra riots in Gujarat. He was the most articulate spokesman of the Bombay Club, which he did not convene, but where he ended up being the only member willing to say what the government of the day (the Congress) did not wish to hear. He repeated this any number of times, lastly when he told three ministers (from the BJP) that industrialists were scared to speak up under the current government. He also ensured a smooth succession to his sons so the group could continue to thrive.

I have three final comments on the book. First, between publisher and author, it could have really benefited from an extra edit. There are some repetitions, missing references, and discrepant dates. These are minor blemishes of a great read, but Rahul was a master of both big picture and detail, and these details would matter to him. Second, this is really two books. There is Rahul’s life, and there is the journey of the firms he built; the story of the firms after he handed over responsibility to his sons should have been summarised or be in a different book. Third, to me Rahul’s most endearing qualities were his sense of fun and his generosity. He brought energy — even joy — to the most serious meeting, and transformed many causes by generously contributing both money and time. He enjoyed life, and helped all those he came in contact with to enjoy life more. He made the world a better place for all those of us who were fortunate to know him.

There are stories of these exceptional qualities at various places in the book, but they could have come through more strongly. Overall, though, there is more than enough in this book to convince anyone of how extraordinary Rahul’s life was.

Rahul Bajaj: An Extraordinary Life; Gita Piramal, Penguin Business, ₹799

The reviewer is Co-Chairman, Forbes Marshall.

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