As I begin to collect my thoughts on a calm Sunday morning in Mumbai, it seems surreal to think that Rahul Bajaj is no longer around. That the man who was the epitome of tremendous strength and courage has actually passed on is a little too difficult to digest especially when it is someone you liked and admired immensely.
As a Pune-based friend who on hearing the news of his passing exclaimed, “This just cannot be true!! Rahul Bajaj cannot leave us so early.” Her reaction was understandable like many others who were stunned by the news. Reports had been doing the rounds for a while within industry circles that he was not very well but then it became tough for many of us to accept the harsh truth too.
Memories come flooding back as I try to recall incidents over the last three decades from the time I first saw Rahul Bajaj in Mumbai way back in the early 1990s. This was at a press meet where, as a young reporter, I could just stand and gawk at the man synonymous with Hamara Bajaj and an icon of Indian industry.
My first conversation with him, however, was on the phone some months later to seek more details on news of his company’s exploratory interest in cars. When he came on the line, I remember being nervous as hell even while he dwelt upon the potential multinational carmakers Bajaj Auto was in talks with.
As I hastily made my notes on a piece of paper and thanked him profusely, it hit me that I had actually spoken to the Rahul Bajaj, the man whose picture I had constantly seen in newspapers and magazines. Imagine talking to the colossus of Indian industry even if it was for a few minutes. Over the years, as we met more often in Pune and Mumbai, my respect for this remarkable individual only increased.
For one thing, he carried his power lightly and made sure that you were at ease while visiting him at his office in Akurdi or at Bajaj Bhavan in Mumbai’s Nariman Point . Given his phenomenal networking with top names across the country and even the world, he had some fabulous anecdotes to share. “Hey, all this is only for your ears,” he would tell me with a big smile followed by a hearty laugh while narrating some of these stories.
The fact that Rahul Bajaj was a southpaw like me perhaps was another reason to be drawn to him. I remember being the odd one out in my generation where ridicule was inevitable in social occasions like weddings but here was the Chairman of Bajaj Auto who was a left-hander too!!
I remember the time when, in one of my previous assignments in a newspaper, we were working on a new plan for Pune and he invited my editor and colleague over for high tea. As we entered his sprawling yet tastefully done bungalow in Akurdi, he heartily welcomed us and made sure that we were comfortable. The evening was lively as Rahul Bajaj discussed a whole lot of issues and even showed us around his magnificent home. What struck the three of us was his generosity as a host and how we went out of the way to ensure that we were all comfortable.
Yet another memorable occasion was the time I travelled with him from Delhi to Pantngar by the then private carrier, Jagson Airlines. Bajaj Auto had set up a plant in Uttarakhand and had organised trips to ferry the posse of journalists by air in batches. Naturally, I was thrilled to be travelling with Rahul Bajaj and it was a memorable ride where he had a lot of stories to narrate.
There was, of course, the friendly twinkle in his eyes as he reminded me, “Hey, this is off the record!” I would smile and assure him that my lips were sealed. I can still remember this plane ride as if it happened only yesterday. Some incidents remain ingrained in your mind forever and thankfully so!
When Rahul Bajaj entered a room, people stood up and took notice. He exuded power and charisma while calling a spade a spade. The Bajaj Auto chief was not afraid of taking any issue head-on which made him an all-time favourite with reporters when it came to juicy copy. He made it amply clear that he had nothing to hide and this is what made him stand out.
This level of straightforwardness was such a remarkable trait compared to many other CEOs who were far more guarded and circumspect when it came to discussing issues openly on Government policies. They preferred to be discreet instead and steer clear of any controversy.
But not Rahul Bajaj who was truly the personification of courage and did not hold anything back. He made it amply clear that he knew what he was talking about and was not going to be cowed down by anybody. In the process, he constantly ended up being the lone voice of dissent in a room where others would just clam up and pretend that nothing was amiss.
The Bajaj Auto chief, on the contrary, would make known that something was seriously adrift if he felt so. He was absolutely categorical about his views on any subject be it the auto industry, policies, governance and what have you. And if he did not want to talk about something, he would tell you so bluntly without being evasive.
Bajaj Auto press conferences in the 1990s were literally big ticket events to look forward to especially with Rahul Bajaj holding centrestage and answering questions with aplomb. These were the days of Hamara Bajaj when geared scooters were the favourites of the masses and the company was the monarch of all it surveyed.
Clad in his familiar safari suit and with his voice booming from the dais, the Bajaj Auto Chairman was the cynosure of all eyes. In his trademark style, he would hold forth on the company’s performance, the challenges ahead and so on. The next few years would see a change in market leadership with the motorcycle revolution gathering momentum and Hero Honda took over the top slot. The Bajaj scooter was rapidly being relegated to the sidelines but the slogan of Hamara Bajaj and the underlying message of unity in diversity remained firmly etched in every Indian’s heart.
I can imagine how delighted he must have been with the resurrection of the Chetak brand in a more stylish electric avatar. The fact that the erstwhile scooter plant at Akurdi has also been revived is the best tribute to his legacy. Admittedly, my conversations with him were not as regular as they were in recent years even while I made it a point to call and wish him on his birthday every year. We would talk for a few minutes on the phone and he would check out on what I was up to before saying goodbye.
It seems difficult to digest the fact that he is not going to be around for what would have been his 84th birthday in June. On a more personal and emotive level, my heart does ache a bit since my mother was also born in 1938 and departed last year.
This month has seen the passing of another icon, Lata Mangeshkar, which is only a reminder to all of us that the cycle of life and death is only inevitable. Yet, people like Rahul Bajaj were truly an inspiration in terms of showing the way in straight talk and integrity. He will be sorely missed. Rest in peace, my friend.