Rahul Bajaj, who has died aged 83, was a rare fearless businessman who prioritised the larger social interest over business interest. It was the beginning of the group -- which his grandfather Jamnalal Bajaj founded during the family's involvement in the Independence movement -- that got him to believe that the Bajaj family members are "custodians of wealth". However, as the curtain falls on the era of Rahul Bajaj, the Bajaj family is the third richest in the country.
When Rahul Bajaj came back to India in 1965 after completing his MBA from Harvard, the group was largely known for its electrical, steel and sugar businesses. He built Bajaj Auto from a mere assembler of scooters to manufacturer of iconic brand Chetak. In the 80s, he grew as a business leader nationally and nurtured friends among the political circles in Delhi. He was close to leaders in Maharashtra, especially Sharad Pawar.
He never tried to please the people in power and sometimes publicly criticised the government and policies. The last incident would be that he told home minister Amit Shah in a public function "...if we criticise you there is no confidence that you will appreciate that". Bajaj, the third generation businessman, expressed his concerns to the then finance minister Manmohan Singh in 1993 over the threat to domestic business from foreign companies post economic liberalisation.
When Rahul Bajaj joined the force at the isolated plant of Bajaj Auto Ltd in Akurdi, 15 km away from Pune (then Poona), it was completely surrounded by wood. However, he left his South Bombay life and shifted to Akurdi and built a house inside the plant area, where snakes were regular visitors to his home. He told his friends in Bombay who asked about it, that he didn't want to be an absentee landlord.
His wife, Rupa, who passed away in 2013, was also well regarded in the family. When differences cropped up in the Bajaj group in the early 2000s, the rival faction of Shishir Bajaj, who is younger brother of Rahul, recommended the name of Rupa Bajaj as the mediator. However, Rahul Bajaj stopped his wife as the split was a tricky affair that could potentially damage reputations.
All his three children – Rajiv, Sajiv and daughter Sunaina Kejriwal– grew up in Akurdi. “The factory workers saw us every day and considered us one among them,” Rahul Bajaj once said. He proudly added that his sons went to the same school and college in Pune, before going for graduation in engineering at Warwick.
In work commitments, the sons of Bajaj are like their father. Outside the business, Rajiv Bajaj expresses his views on politics, but Sanjiv refrains.
After the split of the Bajaj family in 2007, the cousin brothers Shekhar, Madhur and Niraj continued to align with Rahul Bajaj. The bitterness of family feud later forced him to think about formalising succession and ownership process. In June 2018, the 22 members of the family signed a Family Settlement Agreement (FSA), which delineates clearly how the family wealth will be divided, and who will manage which industries.
"The legacy of my grandfather Jamnalal is invaluable. Gandhi ji considered him as the adopted son. This value system helped our family to grow," said Rahul Bajaj in an interaction in 2018.
On the business front, people identify him as the creator of Chetak. The scooter production stopped when his son Rajiv took over the operations of Bajaj Auto. The decision was tough. Rahul Bajaj told his son, "Do whatever you think best, but be the best at whatever you do." Bajaj Auto continued its glorious journey with Pulsar under the leadership of Rajiv.
Creation of finance business is another milestone. Till 2007, the finance business hardly had an existence. Since Bajaj Auto was cash-rich, it had a financing arm called Bajaj Auto Finance, which loaned money to help customers to buy its two-wheelers. Rahul Bajaj had said that the move to delink the lending business from Bajaj Auto was the game-changer and called it the toughest and most successful decision in his life.
The Bajaj group is valued over ₹8.5 lakh crore in the stock market. In terms of wealth, the Bajaj family would come next to that of Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani. Though Rahul Bajaj never chased wealth.