Rahul Bajaj Review: An Extraordinary Life of Gita Piramal: The Legacy of Rahul Bajaj

Gita Piramal’s biography of one of India’s greatest industrialists is the story of Indian industry, before and after liberalisation, with a spotlight on the role of politics

Gita Piramal’s biography of one of India’s greatest industrialists is the story of Indian industry, before and after liberalisation, with a spotlight on the role of politics

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

Kamalnayan was a three-time member of Wardha’s Lok Sabha representing Congress and engaged at length in debate with Nehru on economic policy. This stands out clearly and was fundamental to Rahul’s own later battles with Indira Gandhi and her politicians. Most of the book is dedicated to Rahul as an industrialist, who made Bajaj a household name. Piramal insightfully invites us to look at his life through the three lenses 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 heritage and conscious of continuing a proud national tradition established by Grandfather Jamnalal, Father Kamalnayan and Uncle Ramkrishnan; to be named “Rahul” by Jawaharlal Nehru. He had a truly exceptional eye for detail. Piramal recounts how in 1960, at age 22, while training at the old Bajaj Electricals, his father appointed him director of Bajaj Auto which was about to go public: “The youngest member of the board admin asked lots of questions, read every word of the flyer, and edited the materials with the precision of an expert proofreader.” Replace “youngest” with “oldest” and it would read like a description of Rahul at a board meeting six decades later!

The relationship between government and industry manifests itself again and again. Rahul’s story is the story of Indian industry since Nehru. The role of politics, particularly under Indira Gandhi, in thwarting the ambitions of a major industrialist and holding back industry is a recurring theme. Many countries have somewhat perverse economic policies; in India we perfected their perversity. Only here were there maximum limits to what one could produce, for greatness in itself was suspect. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Bajaj Auto, as India’s most efficient two-wheeler manufacturer, sought permission to expand, which was denied or ignored. It was not until the Janata government of 1977, and a decade later under Rajiv Gandhi, that things changed. A protected market also meant no international competition and few incentives to invest in product development. Bajaj Auto stumbled as the market shifted from scooters to motorcycles, but the company’s inherent strength combined with fresh, younger leadership allowed it to thrive after liberalisation, despite greatly increased competition.

Speak truth to power

Rahul’s principles and candor return time and time again. He stepped in as Chairman of Mukand Iron and Steel when Viren Shah went to jail and later became Governor of West Bengal; then walked out as soon as Shah was back. He asked the insurance regulator to approve a payment to a JV partner because the alternative was to do it illegally abroad (he approved it). He spoke after the post-Godhra riots in Gujarat. He was the most eloquent spokesman for the Bombay Club, which he did not summon, but ended up being the only member willing to say what the government of the day (Congress) did not want To hear. He repeated it a number of times, finally when he told three (BJP) ministers that industrialists were afraid to speak out under the current government. He also ensured a smooth succession for his sons so that the group could continue to thrive.

I have three final comments on the book. First, between editor and author, he could really have benefited from additional editing. There are repetitions, missing references and divergent dates. These are minor flaws of a good read, but Rahul was a master of both overview and detail, and those details would be important to him. Second, it’s really two books. There’s Rahul’s life, and there’s the journey of the businesses he built; the history of the companies after he handed over responsibility to his sons should have been summarized or in a different book. Third, for 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 donating money and time. He loved life and helped everyone he came in contact with to enjoy life more. He made the world a better place for all of us who were lucky enough to know him.

There are stories of these exceptional qualities in various places in the book, but they could have stood out more strongly. Overall, however, there is more than enough in this book to convince anyone of Rahul’s extraordinary life.

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

The reviewer is co-chair, Forbes Marshall.