In a footnote in To The Brink and Back: India’s 1991 Story, his book about India’s economic liberalisation, former minister Jairam Ramesh, a key aide to Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, tips his hat to India’s most (some would say only) fearless industrialist Rahul Bajaj.

Bajaj passed away at 83 on February 12 after a prolonged illness.

Ramesh recalls the Bombay Club, that informal lobby of businessmen who, after a single meeting at The Oberoi’s swish members-only Belvedere Club in Mumbai, submitted a five-page memorandum to the Congress government in 1993.

“The group for which Rahul Bajaj emerged as the sole spokesperson welcomed industrial liberalisation but voiced concerns regarding welcoming foreign investment and import duty cuts,” Ramesh writes, adding that the Club’s request for a “level-playing field...came to be seen as a euphemism for protection from foreign competition”.

“We used to have arguments on foreign direct investment particularly,” Ramesh told me. “He was never a great enthusiast for it.”

Bajaj, then labelled a protectionist, was fighting for his right to “Make In India” long before the idea got a fancy logo.

Those were the days when industrialists could argue forcefully with government officials, complain against the state in writing and then hold press conferences about how they were being treated unfairly. But even three decades ago, Bajaj was the most critical and outspoken among his Bombay Club peers.

“It had 15 members, but it was like a one-member club,” Bajaj told students at Hyderabad’s Indian School of Business in 2017. “The government said ‘shut up’ and they obediently shut up, but not me. It seems that I was 20 years ahead of my time.”

After his death, many recalled that powerful moment in 2019 when at a corporate awards event Bajaj pressed Home Minister Amit Shah for a “better reply” on the rebranding of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse; terror-accused Bharatiya Janata Party MP Pragya Thakur; lynching crimes; undertrials who languish in jail without trials; and the atmosphere of fear and intolerance – all in one question. He prefaced his query with: “I was born anti-establishment.”

Nearly two decades earlier, Bajaj had done the same with Narendra Modi, at a 2003 event organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry, when Bajaj and Jamshed Godrej questioned Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat, about the state’s law and order situation after the 2002 anti-Muslim riots. Modi was so enraged, the CII president had to offer him an apology later.

Industrialist Anu Agha recalled what Bajaj told her after she publicly condemned the riots. “Rahul took me aside at a party and said that I had done my bit and, for the sake of my company and family, I should not say any more and that he would write and speak about this cause,” she said.

Agha wrote that he kept his promise.

For 30 years, Bajaj held successive governments accountable, even if he was the only one in his circle to do so. With his death, you might as well throw away the question hour mic at glittery industry events. Now nobody is likely to ask government representatives any worthy questions.

In fact, if we had to name a corporate successor to Bajaj’s tell-it-like-it-is style, it would have to be his elder son Rajiv, who in 2020 withdrew Bajaj Auto ads from three television channels because they promoted toxic content.

“We are very clear our brand would never be associated with anything that we feel is, beyond reasonable doubt, a source of toxicity in society,” he said on a TV show, prompting a flurry of commentary, just like his father had for nearly 30 years. Till date, Rajiv Bajaj is the only big Indian industrialist to publicly endorse a mantra that has gained currency in parts of the world: stop funding hate.

Apart from speaking truth to power, Rahul Bajaj inspired in many other ways. Rahul Fernandes, a journalist who now works at Google, and whose father joined Bajaj Auto in 1967, was named after Bajaj.

“It’s kind of odd because my dad’s name is Oliver and my mother’s name is Dorothy and I have two sisters named Hazel and Rose,” said Fernandes. “My father’s teammate also named his son Rahul.”

After Bajaj’s death, Rahul’s father recalled to his son that Bajaj would wear the same uniform as everyone else on the Akurdi factory complex in Pune. His children went to the same school where his employees studied and he would often be spotted riding a Bajaj scooter on campus.

Rahul Fernandes still has the 1988 Bajaj Super his father bought decades ago. “I’ve refused to sell it because it’s really the only remaining artefact from my childhood,” he said. “The next time I’m in India I plan to have it refurbished.”

Former Amnesty International head Aakar Patel once emailed Bajaj, whom he didn’t know personally, asking for a meeting to seek support for his organisation. The reply was prompt. The next week, Patel flew to Pune along with a colleague to meet Bajaj at his factory.

He had three or four people with him, one of whom was his advisor, Patel recalls. Patel shared what Amnesty was working on then – Kashmir, the misuse of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act anti-terror law and Adivasi rights in coal-mining areas – and asked for Rs 50 lakh.

“Is this likely to get me into trouble,” Bajaj asked his advisor.

“Yes,” the advisor said.

“Okay I’ll send the money,” Bajaj told Patel.

“All this happened in five minutes,” said Patel. “Then for the next 40 minutes we spoke about what was happening in the country. He was a wonderful man with no airs about him. He felt comfortable with the risk he was taking.”

A year later, when Amnesty found itself under attack from the government, Bajaj emailed saying he would not be able to give the organisation any money.

“We’ve done nothing wrong, I assure you,” Patel wrote back.

“Okay I’ll send the money,” Bajaj replied.

After their meeting, Bajaj insisted that Patel visit Sevagram, Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram in Wardha, Maharashtra, where Bajaj grew up and where the group continues to support many initiatives. Bajaj’s grandfather Jamnalal Bajaj, who helped fund the freedom movement, invited Gandhi to come to Wardha.

“Whenever I wrote of wealthy men becoming trustees of their wealth for the common good, I always had this merchant prince principally in mind,” Mahatma Gandhi said on the death of Jamnalal Bajaj.

Now Rahul Bajaj is gone, and many of us swear by the legacy of Savarkar, not Gandhi.

Priya Ramani is on the editorial board of Article 14.