The Time Press

The man who gave India its wheels

Rahul Bajaj’s unwavering focus on mass mobility saw him barrel through India‘s abrupt shift out of autarky, as local manufacturing wilted against competition from vastly superior technology. His prodigious success with putting generations of Indians on the road made ‘Bajaj’ a household name for a very big chunk of mankind and gave the feisty tycoon rare space to speak truth to power. For generations of Indians, the scooters Bajaj Auto made was their first automobile purchase. And the business division created to help them buy these on instalments ended up financing millions of television sets and mobile phones in the countryside. Rahul Bajaj brought his innate understanding of how the Indian market works to his own business empire, deftly carving up the automobile and consumer credit divisions for his sons, Rajiv and Sanjiv. Orderly succession is hard to come by among Indian family-held businesses. Not so for this scion of a dynasty whose initial enterprise coincided with India’s freedom movement.

The group may have fended off competition from successive generations of the ‘people’s car’. But the challenges have by no means abated. Battery-operated scooters can now be entirely assembled by digital startups, and global automobile companies have placed big technology bets on electric mobility. The industry is headed for a structural change once it overcomes the issue of battery swapping. Technology is also disrupting the consumer credit industry. Fintech firms are atomising credit delivery using data. The prospects of scalability have diminished.

The market segments Rahul Bajaj was so intimately familiar with may not be as well-etched as they were during his watch. The frugal engineering that lent the group an edge could be rendered less relevant both by artificial intelligence and rising incomes. Home-grown capitalism deserved a charismatic icon as Rahul Bajaj, whose appeal stemmed from his deep connection with nation-building. He gave the country its first set of wheels, and he will remain, forever, hamara Bajaj.

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