Sanjaya Baru | Rahul Bajaj: A business icon and national leader

There was a time when a business leader like JRD Tata could have a civil relationship with the PM and yet be critical of government policy

It is a testimony to his standing both within India’s business community and society in general that the tributes to the memory of industrialist Rahul Bajaj have been so effusive and warm. Banker Uday Kotak offered the most appropriate eulogy when he tweeted: “Bold and fearless. A rare businessman who spoke truth to power. Built a world class enterprise.”

As I pondered over those words, it occurred to me that the last business leader of whom one could say that was J.R.D. Tata. In 1992, Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao conferred the Bharat Ratna on him. Rahul Bajaj too deserved that honour.

They do not make many like them these days.

Bajaj’s boldness may have been rooted in his upbringing, given his family background, steeped as it was in the national movement, but his entrepreneurship was of his own making. Perhaps his success as an entrepreneur added to his boldness. So too his reputation for honesty and integrity in business. The economist Omkar Goswami, who knew him well, has written in a business newspaper about Bajaj’s commitment to corporate good governance and the leadership role he played in producing a code of good governance for business.

My first encounter with Rahul Bajaj was in November 1993 when I was business editor at the Times Of India. Commenting on a note addressed to then Union finance minister Manmohan Singh by a group of top business persons, I published a column entitled “From Plan to Plea”. It contrasted the boldness of vision of the famous Bombay Plan of 1944, a long-term plan for national development, written by J.R.D. Tata, G.D. Birla, Lala Shri Ram, among others, to what I viewed as a “plea” against liberalisation of what came to be dubbed the Bombay Club, that included Rahul Bajaj, Hari Shankar Singhania, M.V. Arunachalam, C.K. Birla, Jamshed Godrej, B.K. Modi, Bharat Ram and L.M. Thapar.

The note was reported in the media as a complaint against the liberalisation initiatives of then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao. Soon after my column was published, I received two phone calls. One from Mr Singhania and the other from Mr Bajaj. Both claimed that their views had been misrepresented in the media and their note was no more than a “pre-Budget memorandum” presented to Union finance minister Manmohan Singh. They did not want their statement to be viewed as being opposed to the Rao-Singh reforms nor did they wish to add their voice to the anti-liberalisation forces.

They did not want critics to allege that they were lobbying for protection, nor secure concessions from the government. They fully endorsed the vision of Prime Minister Rao and Dr Singh but were seeking a proper “sequencing” of liberalisation and only sought a “level playing field” in dealing with competition from the more financially powerful global competitors. If the purpose of external liberalisation was to shift dependence from foreign debt to foreign investment and trade then, they said, ways should be found to reduce foreign debt without hurting domestic industry.

Years later, when I was in the Prime Minister’s Office, Mr Bajaj came to call on Dr Singh to discuss some policy issues. Dr Singh teased him and asked if the Bombay Club had met again! Turning towards me, Mr Bajaj jocularly claimed it was all media mischief. If in 1993 I, like many in the media, had viewed him as someone lobbying against government policy, by the mid-2000s I had come to respect him for what he was. He had emerged by then both as a courageous leader of Indian business and a successful global business leader.

Apart from his entrepreneurship and courage, many people have paid wholesome tribute to his social commitment. I saw this up close as a member of the board of Bharat Yuva Shakti Trust, an NGO that was focused on promoting young, first-generation entrepreneurs. Mr Bajaj was chairman of the trust. Flying down from Pune to Delhi, leaving his corporate work aside for an entire day, he never failed to attend a single meeting of BYST over the years. His commitment to the empowerment of the less privileged was palpable.

Mr Kotak’s tribute draws attention to the fact that few business leaders today are known for promoting world class enterprise, being committed to national development and social justice and willing to speak “truth to power”. That is a pity.

India today has more billionaires than even a decade ago and yet Indian business leaders remain shy of speaking their mind on important issues of policy and governance. The “atmosphere of fear” among business persons that Mr Bajaj articulated at a meeting of a business organisation in the presence of Union home minister Amit Shah some years ago is pervasive and palpable.

Mr Bajaj’s exceptional example raises an important question. Why has business leadership lost the courage to “speak truth to power”, or just speak in the larger interests of society and the nation? There are just a handful of billionaires today whom one can think of as having that kind of courage and commitment.

Perhaps this is because even three decades after the licence-permit-control raj ended, there is still a “regulation raj” and, worse, political bossism through various agencies of the State.

There has of course been some improvement in business-government relations. One does not come across too many instances of the sort when a young Union minister would harass an elderly businessman, openly demanding a slice of the cake. But business persons still have to deal with the routine harassment of a Kafkaesque State or plain bad manners when Union ministers and chief ministers seek supplication before engagement.

There was a time when a business leader like J.R.D. Tata could have a civil relationship with the Prime Minister and yet be critical of government policy. Many are today not aware that J.R.D. Tata openly funded the Swatantra Party because he agreed with its views on economic policy and was critical of Jawaharlal Nehru’s policies. Many business persons are wary today of extending such open support to the Opposition political parties even as they fill the coffers of a ruling party.

Next Story