Politicians and corporate executives have been in charge of the future of the Indian auto industry ever since the country's independence. We choose the individuals who had the most impact. Unsurprisingly, Maruti, the business that has contributed significantly to India's automotive history over the past 75 years, is represented on the list by three out of the ten names.
1. Jawaharlal Nehru
India inherited the socialist ideology and centralized planning of the former Soviet Union under Jawaharlal Nehru, our first Prime Minister. The Nehru government's policies were based on protectionism since it was thought to be the most effective method to provide a young country economic independence. The government's aggressive participation in economic planning specifically hurt the automotive industry. The auto sector was viewed with scorn and subjected to strangling rules because it was seen as a producer of luxury goods, which was opposed to the socialist beliefs of policymakers. There were few options, only a few vehicle firms were allowed to exist, and consumers were forced to pay for outdated and subpar goods.
Some might argue that Nehru was forced to follow the socialist road in order to lift India out of poverty, but there is no denying that the rules he put in place prevented the auto industry from developing for three decades while the rest of the automotive industry advanced quickly. What might have happened to the auto sector if Nehru had chosen a more laissez-faire course is solely a matter of conjecture.
Why: His restrictive policies caused a three-decade auto industry freeze.
2. Indira Gandhi
Ironically, Nehru's daughter gave the auto sector its first taste of liberalization. Former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi nationalized Maruti Motors Limited in 1981. Sanjay Gandhi, Indira's son, had founded the bankrupt automaker in 1971. Sanjay Gandhi died in a plane crash in Delhi in 1980, and the prime minister wanted Maruti Udyog Ltd to be a memorial to her late son. As a result, her government asked international manufacturers to work with this newly established public sector corporation.
Yes, the Indian government desired to produce automobiles! This change of heart resulted in the state becoming directly involved in the auto industry, and it is said that Gandhi sent orders to various government departments to promptly destroy any Maruti information. To the dismay of players in the private sector who battled to obtain clearances and approvals in what was still a highly regulated industry, Maruti Udyog received the red carpet from bureaucrats and policymakers instead of red tape.
Why: Because she got the Indian government into the business of making cars and gave birth to the car revolution.
3. Osamu Suzuki
Only Osamu Suzuki's tenacity allowed him to defeat industry heavyweights like Volkswagen, Renault, and Fiat as well as rival Daihatsu from Japan to partner with Maruti Udyog. A huge leap of faith was required to partner with the government and invest in a nation with no history of automobile production. A modern, dependable, fuel-efficient, and reasonably priced car was exactly what India needed, according to Suzuki, who was a cunning businessman.
Suzuki's little SS80 (and later S308B) launched a revolution and put a whole country on wheels. The Maruti 800 and later the Alto established the standard by which all automobiles were judged and influenced the market structure that gave rise to a strong predilection for small automobiles. For more than three decades, Osamu Suzuki, who is now 92 years old, has personally led Maruti Udyog (now Maruti Suzuki) and fought the Indian government, rivals, and exploitative alliance partners.
Why: Because he took a punt on India and put a nation on wheels with his little Suzukis.
4. PV Narasimha Rao
In 1991, India was forced to liberalize its economy and allow foreign investment due to a balance of payments crisis. The then-Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao holds the honorary title of the father of economic reforms in India, despite the fact that Finance Minister Manmohan Singh delivered the historic budget that year. He made the politically difficult choice to liberalise the economy and skillfully attracted outside support for his minority government's efforts to enact the reforms. There was no turning back after the economy had begun to liberalize, thus in 1993 Rao's administration delicensed the auto sector. The chains were removed after 40 years. The de-licensing of the auto sector let in a flood of foreign manufacturers who saw India as the last untouched market in the globe.
Why: Because he opened up the auto industry (and the economy) to the world after 40 years of isolation.
5. Ratan Tata
Ratan Tata must be considered the lone Indian who was able to create and take an Indian automaker global. Making the advantage of the Indian economy's liberalization, he assumed the position of chairman of Tata Motors in 1991. Ratan's first child, the Indica, on which he himself worked intimately, launched Tata Motors right into the centre of the auto industry's competition. It's a testament to the Tata automobile's sound design, which was based entirely on the requirements of Indian car buyers, that the rough-around-the-edges Indica could compete with the international brands swarming into India in the middle of the 1990s.
The recent success of Tata Motors is inextricably linked to Ratan's legacy even today. The Tiago is descended from the first Indica, and the most popular Nexon is from the second-generation Indica Vista platform (X1), both of which he approved. Although Ratan's other pet project, the Nano, didn't do well commercially, it served as an inspiration for firms like Nissan and Renault to create their own affordable vehicles.
Why: Because he single-handedly built an indigenous car company and made it global.
6. RC Bhargava
Maruti's management has been essential to its success. The company's managing director, RC Bhargava, set out to ensure that the young joint venture between Suzuki and the Indian government received not just Suzuki's best technology but also absorbed the extremely effective work culture of the Japanese throughout its formative years. With an astounding 80% market share, Bhargava, a former IAS officer, made Maruti the crown jewel of the public sector and the most successful company in the Indian car industry.
Suzuki's ownership in the joint venture was gradually increased to a 50:50 split thanks to Bhargava (from the original 26:74). The government ultimately decided to stop manufacturing automobiles as a result of the acrimonious fight between the two partners over control of the business, and Bhargava skillfully placed Suzuki in charge. Without Bhargava to lead and counsel Suzuki, the company's fate may have taken a very different turn, therefore it stands to reason that he still has full faith in and access to Osamu Suzuki. Despite being far into his 80s, Bhargava is still in charge of the company's strategic activities.
Why: Because he made a public sector undertaking imbibe the work culture, efficiency and manufacturing processes of the Japanese, which became the bedrock for Maruti’s dominance.
7. Anand Mahindra
Anand Mahindra has been leading the organization that bears his name for more than 30 years. He oversaw the transition of Mahindra & Mahindra from a manufacturer of tough and practical automobiles to an aspirational brand that could contend with major competitors on the international stage. The first-generation Scorpio was created under Anand's direction for a mere Rs 600 crore, a tiny fraction of what a multinational would have charged to produce a comparable SUV. Anand was also the one who fought Ford's attempts to create the Scorpio, which in the long run might have put Mahindra's independence in jeopardy.
The Scorpio permanently altered public perceptions of Mahindra and how people saw SUVs, transforming them from utilitarian people movers to serious alternatives to automobiles. Since that time, Mahindra has moved forward without looking back, and despite some roadblocks (such as the abandoned joint ventures with Renault and Ford), the business has maintained its independence and developed into a powerful player, overcoming fierce international competition and winning hearts with iconic products like the Scorpio, Bolero, and Thar.
In November 2021, Anand resigned as M&M's chairman and gave up his executive position, but not before he left the business in strong hands and good form. Mahindra is experiencing a comeback, led by a young, vibrant team that Anand personally selected. It is driving the company and its share price to new heights on the strength of a fresh batch of hugely successful items. Anand's finest skill has always been finding the best talent; from Pawan Goenka to Anish Shah and Rajesh Jejurikar, everyone of the individuals he has chosen have demonstrated outstanding leadership as they have managed the business.
One of Anand Mahindra's final tasks as chairman was to encourage Mahindra to concentrate on its core DNA and continue to create authentic SUVs, as this was the brand his grandfather JC Mahindra founded. The success of the Thar, XUV700, and Scorpio-N is evidence that this approach is quite effective. Anand is quite active on social media, and the millions of people that follow him find him to be a great inspiration.
Why: Because he transformed Mahindra from a maker of rugged and utilitarian vehicles into an aspirational brand without losing sight of the company’s heritage and legacy.
8. Nitin Gadkari
Nitin Gadkari has had more of an impact on the car sector recently than any other politician, and that too on numerous fronts. After the Narendra Modi-led government took office in 2014, Gadkari was appointed Minister of Road Transport and Highways and began carrying out the duties left unfinished by the previous NDA administration in 2004. He exponentially accelerated the rate of road development. It was no accident that drivers were converting to bigger and larger cars (mostly SUVs) that were better suited for long-distance travel while new highways sprang up all across the nation. With Gadkari in charge of MoRTH, the auto industry has not had it easy. His infamous comment that he would bulldoze automakers if they didn't adhere to the most recent emission rules is a reflection of the government's sometimes harsh stance toward the sector.
In terms of safety, Gadkari was the one who campaigned for the most recent crash test standards, which became applicable to all cars in 2019 and, in the process, eliminated real death traps from Indian roads. The most significant safety item he introduced may be the 120kph speed warning buzzer. Gadkari, however, has developed a habit of dictating which technology to employ rather than merely establishing the standards and allowing the sector to determine how to best satisfy them. His insistence on switching to ethanol fuel, as well as his more recent outrageous demand to mandate six airbags for all vehicles, have shaken the industry.
Why: He gave us expressways and has a strong – and often unsettling – influence in the move to stricter emission and safety standards.
9. Jagdish Khattar
If RC Bhargava established Maruti as a colossal automotive powerhouse, it was his successor, the late Jagdish Khattar, who served as managing director from 1999 to 2007, who transformed this monopolistic behemoth into a customer-focused and consumer-led business. Khattar didn't pretend to be a vehicle enthusiast because he wasn't. His ability to win the hearts and minds of his clients was the key to his success. Khattar's dedication to providing excellent customer service is what gave Maruti its unrivalled reputation for customer-centricity, and the business is still reaping the benefits of his labour. In fact, Maruti Suzuki is currently enlarging its reputation for offering a pain-free ownership experience in the face of superior competition. Men like Khattar created and cultivated the unwavering faith that consumers have in the brand.
Khattar's dogged pursuit of gaining the trust of customers was important in turning around Maruti, whose market share had dropped to an all-time low of 40% in 2011 as a result of a three-month strike and a lacklustre product pipeline. Among the strategies he employed to cultivate client loyalty were lowering the cost and increasing the accessibility of services, preserving residual values, and providing value-added services. Khattar changed Maruti into a more agile business that could respond to consumer needs more quickly through his decisiveness, vision, and passion.
Why: Because he always had the customer at heart and set new benchmarks for customer service, which has been a key factor in Maruti Suzuki’s success.
10. Supreme Court of India
The Supreme Court's decisions have shocked the auto industry since a small group of Indian automakers petitioned it in 1969 for relief from the government's oppressive price controls. More recently, the judiciary took a tough stance against the auto industry's request for a deadline extension for BS4 sales. The judiciary's involvement primarily focuses on enforcing deadlines and emission standards to reduce vehicular pollution. The Supreme Court of India ordered Indian automakers to overnight switch to stricter Euro II requirements or remove their vehicles off the road in a landmark decision on April 29, 1999.
Both the Euro I and Euro II deadlines were accelerated by nine months and five years, respectively to April 2000! The bench had famously declared, If we have to choose between economy and public health, we will choose public health. Despite their good intentions, several Supreme Court decisions have been overly aggressive and have cost businesses millions of crores in cumulative damages without having any discernible effect on air quality. A nonsensical decision by the Supreme Court in December 2015 that seemed to have more to do with punishing the wealthy than improving air quality resulted in an overnight ban on diesel vehicles with engines larger than 2,000cc.
The top court's decision to halt sales of BS4 vehicles by April 1, 2020, rather than manufacturing, which is the generally acknowledged standard for a smooth transition, caused the auto sector the most trouble. Due to the fact that the market, not auto firms, determines how many cars are sold, it was logistically impossible to stop BS4 sales on March 31.
Some automakers were left with unsold BS4 cars due to the global lockout that occurred shortly before the April 1 deadline, and manufacturers had to request special exemptions from the Supreme Court in order to be permitted to sell them after that date. There is no doubt that the Supreme Court contributed to manufacturers' efforts to make their engines cleaner.
Why: Because the judiciary’s intervention in enforcing legislation has had a seismic effect on automakers' plans.