A year after renouncing the position of executive chairman, which he had held for nearly five decades, Rahul Bajaj, one of India’s most animated industrialists, decided to step down as non-executive chairman of Bajaj Auto, effective April 30, 2021.
Bajaj had one of the longest serving chairmen in corporate India, next only to KM Mammen Mappillai, the founder of Chennai-based tyremaking behemoth MRF, who held the reins for 51 years.
Bajaj who turned 83 in June, 2021 and age was the reason for his resignation. In 2020, he stepped down as chairman of Bajaj Finance, the biggest company in Bajaj Group by market capitalisation, and later at Bajaj Finserv.
While his younger son Sanjiv Bajaj took over as Chairman at both the finance companies last year, cousin Niraj Bajaj was appointed Chairman of Bajaj Auto while elder son Rajiv Bajaj will continue as managing director.
Credited with making brand Bajaj a household name through the launch of blockbuster models such as the Chetak and Priya in the 1970s, an identity later cemented by the marketing tagline ‘Hamara Bajaj’, he successfully steered the company through The Emergency, License Raj and Economic Liberalisation that began in the 1990s.
Not just scooters
But geared scooters were not the only roots of the Pune-based company. Through the 1950s and 60s the Bajaj Group sold three-wheeled autorickshaws and mini trucks under license from Germany. Called Bajaj Tempo, this unit was later bought by the Firodia Group in the late 1960s, and the name changed to Force Motors in 2005.
Bajaj launched the Chetak, one of the company’s earliest independent two-wheeler models. Its design and styling was borrowed from the Vespa of Italy. Chetak became a runaway hit among Indian middle-class households, which were looking for an affordable and easy personal vehicle. Such was the demand that the waiting period stretched to 10 years, as there was a production cap in place then.
Rahul Bajaj then steered the company into the motorcycle segment, becoming one of the first to launch a locally made motorcycle in India through a tie-up with Kawasaki of Japan. But though the popularity of motorcycles began to rise steadily through the 1980s and 1990s, he refused to let the scooter fade away without a fight.
Modern and improvised versions of the Chetak, such as the Classic and other new scooters, made their way into Bajaj showrooms with the hope of reviving demand. However, by then the cheap and easy-to-ride motorcycles made by Japanese companies had made dramatic inroads into the Indian market.
Chetak’s Death and resurrection
Chetak, the most iconic of Bajaj’s offerings, saw its last rollout from the Akurdi production line in 2005, the same year Rahul Bajaj gave up the managing director’s position to elder son Rajiv.
Open disagreements between the duo over Chetak’s phase-out made headlines in newspapers but the decision was already made. Motorcycles were to become the mainstay of Bajaj Auto, led by the Pulsar, which was introduced in 2001.
However, the close association of Chetak with Rahul Bajaj was to be resurrected 15 years later. The iconic scooter was resurrected in 2020 when Bajaj Auto launched a fully electric version of the model, marking its entry in the electric vehicle space. That same year Rahul Bajaj stepped down from his position as executive chairman of Bajaj Auto.