Rajiv Bajaj has four posers for the government on lockdown
India looked into the wrong crystal ball in dealing with the coronavirus, believes Rajiv Bajaj. In an interview to ET Now, the outspoken MD of Bajaj Auto pilloried the Centre for going ahead with what he saw as a Western model of virus containment instead of taking cues from Asian nations like Japan or South…
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India looked into the wrong crystal ball in dealing with the coronavirus, believes Rajiv Bajaj. In an interview to ET Now, the outspoken MD of Bajaj Auto pilloried the Centre for going ahead with what he saw as a Western model of virus containment instead of taking cues from Asian nations like Japan or South Korea that had not imposed harsh curbs and kept their economies running.
Mumbai on Wednesday recorded 51,000 cases of Covid, taking it past the peak in Wuhan, where the virus first emerged. Infections are also spiking in the capital Delhi, where authorities have said they expect to see more than half a million cases by the end of July.
The lockdown was aimed at flattening the Covid curve, but it ended up flattening a very different curve — the growth (GDP) curve, Bajaj told Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in an earlier interview. The industrialist, who rarely holds anything back, had four posers for the government. Excerpts from his interview:
You have been unequivocal in your view that we started the lockdown too early and it went on for too long. You called it a draconian lockdown. What do you think should have been done differently? We are looking at a large number of cases in India but relatively fewer deaths. Would you concede that it was because of a stringent lockdown that went on for so long?
You are asking me this question after I read in the papers today that our previous Chief Minister Fadnavis said that my view on this does not count because I am not an expert. He is right. I am not an expert. If I might take a shot back at him, I would say to him, yes, I am not an expert; which is why I do not think lockdown karke, thali baja ke, diya jala ke aur phool barsa ke corona dur hota hai (you can’t cure corona by banging plates, lighting diyas or showering flowers).
But more seriously, I do not necessarily have answers but I do have some thoughts or some questions. Number one, I do not understand why we look West when we should have looked East because we are an Asian country with Asian levels of immunity, temperature and demography. Young population perhaps has a resistance to thrombosis, which is important in the context of this virus.
So first off, I want the government to explain to me why is it that they look west? Two, I do not understand completely why those who are in the age group of 21 to 60, which is largely the working population, are healthy and robust kept at home and not allowed to go to work wearing a mask and keeping a distance. Why would they not be allowed to go to work? What is the data based on which we put everybody inside and virtually ground the wheels of the economy to a halt, I do not understand.
Three, I do not at this moment buy the argument that this early and hard lockdown has limited infections or deaths in India quite simply because look at what is happening in Japan. Japan is a greying society and to the best of my knowledge, there are fewer than thousand deaths in Japan.
Look at Thailand, a society in which “everybody mixes with everyone”. To the best of my knowledge, they have 100 or 200 deaths; maybe it is double digit, I am not sure. Look at a small country like Cambodia, Singapore etc. So my point is that most Asian countries have reported very low infections and very low deaths as compared to the West and I do not think it is the reflected glory of the Indian lockdown. It is because Asian countries or populations for whatever reason are behaving differently.
Finally my quarrel with the logic of the lockdown is that it was ostensibly done to flatten the curve so that the medical infrastructure could catch up. The math will never add up; of 1.4 billion people, if you take 10% who are elderly, 10% who are hypertensive, 10% who are diabetic and so on and so forth, you are talking of 300-400 million people.
There is no way to flatten that curve even if you were to lockdown for a year. You would need a capacity of 5-10 million beds, ventilators with nurses and doctors to be able to deal with that kind of a population. So the math just does not add up there. These are four fundamental reasons why I do not understand the motive behind the lockdown.
Let us take a country like Sweden; lauded by everyone for not imposing any lockdown. Now they are sitting and questioning each other because they have some of the highest mortality rates in the world. But if you had no restrictions and you go back to the month of March, would you have done things differently in terms of how you let your employees come in to work or kept at home or how you would have managed your business or even your family?
I am glad you brought up Sweden because I think this example is either misunderstood or widely misquoted. Sweden did not continue business as usual. Sweden advocated hygiene, masks, distancing, and particularly that one took care of the elderly. They did all of that. What they did not do is to go and lock up everybody else who was young and healthy irrespective of taking all these precautions.
So Sweden did not go from one extreme of business as usual to the other extreme. Sweden found the middle path in doing this and we have to wait to see how the data matures out of Sweden because as the Swedish Chief Scientist has said, the death rate in Sweden is higher than that of the Scandinavian neighbours who locked them up harder than we did.
But let us watch what happens in six to 12 months time when they have opened up. Let us watch how they catch up because he made a very chilling statement. He said the hallmark of this pandemic is that the healthy and the young are silently waiting to infect the old and the vulnerable, which means that the virus is always going to be around waiting for you to unlock and this is exactly what has happened in India. As we are unlocking and beginning to meet each other and as we are testing more, the cases are going up.
So what would I have done differently? Fundamentally, I would have exercised all these precautions in terms of the mask, distancing, and keeping the elderly safe. But I would have said to everyone else to get on with their work. One of the arguments made against that, for example, is that people live with the elderly or with the unwell and how will they manage it. I think we have to grant people that they have the sense to make those choices for themselves. You and I have the choice to decide whether or not we want to smoke.
We have that right knowing fully well that smoking kills. It says so on the packet of cigarettes. People unfortunately exercise the choice not to wear their seatbelt or not to wear their helmet. That does not mean you shutdown Bajaj Auto because riding a two-wheeler is not safe. So we have to leave it to people to make that final choice in the final mile and not micromanage their lives. That is my point.
There has been a call for Aatm Nirbhar Bharat and there are few Indian companies that typify the Aatm Nirbhar Bharat formula long before the slogan was coined such as Bajaj Auto. How workable do you think that idea is and what are the challenges to truly becoming this kind of a company that is an Indian company supplying to the world?
There are a lot of people who seem to think that Aatm Nirbhar stands for exclusion; the exclusion of multinational companies or foreign brands and their products. I personally do not think that is what the Prime Minister meant by Aatm Nirbhar or that is what the Government of India means by Aatm Nirbhar. I think what they mean by that is quite simply excellence and to me excellence means to be world class and to be world class means to be global.
That is what we have pursued at Bajaj Auto. 15 years back we were a company that exported almost nothing. Today we are a company that exports about half of what it makes under normal circumstances, which means we are a globally competitive company. We call ourselves the world’s favourite Indian because we compete successfully in more than 70 countries across the world. So this to me is the meaning of Aatm Nirbhar. If this is what the government means then I could not agree with it more.
You asked me what stands in the way of this. At a very fundamental level, what stands in the way of this is simply greed. Companies try to extend the scope of their business and they try to extend their brands into areas which are not core to them and by doing so, they diffuse their brand and dilute their competitiveness.
Just to illustrate; let me give you these examples; how absurd does a Volvo salt sound to you? Quite absurd but Tata Salt sounds fine. How absurd does Jeep Holiday resort sound to you? But Mahindra Holiday Resort sounds fine. How absurd is BMW Juicer, mixer, grinder sound to you? Pretty absurd but a Bajaj Juicer, mixer, grinder sounds fine.
So at the heart of business, your greatest asset is your brand and if you have to be a global brand as distinct from a local one, then you need to be very sharp. In other words, the best advice I ever got when we were pursuing a strategy of being globally competitive was to narrow your focus. The narrower you are, the sharper you are and the deeper you will go because then you have an identity that is clear to everyone and by doing the same thing again and again, you will probably do it better than anyone else does.
Now every sports person, every artist, every musician, every chef, every doctor understands the virtue of specialising in this fashion. But unfortunately, business people especially in emerging market do not because the market is so large that while they talk global, unfortunately they largely act local and try to extend and expand their business and their brand to capture as much of local business as possible.
Then this does not work and that is why you may remember that 15 years back the first step on the path to globalisation is that of sacrifice. Bajaj had to sacrifice its scooter business in order to put every man, every rupee and every minute behind its motorcycle business at a time when we were pygmies in the world of motorcycles and say to ourselves that one day we will be forced to reckon with as a global motorcycle manufacturer.
What are the three most important ingredients that helped us? Well since the government is fond of acronyms; let me tell you our secret sauce. It is called FIT: F stands for a sharp focus; it all starts with a sharp global focus which in our case was to make the best motorcycles in the world. I stands for a unique idea. The big idea in our case as someone actually outside the company articulated recently; Bajaj seems to be able to put together motorcycles that embody European design, Japanese quality and Indian prices. That may sound simplistic but it is a very powerful idea. I think we do it very well.
Finally coming to T; the T stands for an aligned team. Only if we are all making the same movie and we say to ourselves all the time at Bajaj that we will all make a great bike only if we are all making the same bike. If somebody wants to make a cheap bike, somebody wants to make an expensive bike, somebody wants to make a fast bike and somebody wants to make a high mileage bike, I know I am going to make the worst of all bikes.
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