Upwardly mobile


When Bajaj scooters ride into the sunset next year, it will mark the end of a chapter in the history of how India travelled in the last century. The company has decided to stop production of its scooters and concentrate on motor cycles. India, as famously observed by Jawaharlal Nehru, had entered the bicycle age in the 1950s.

The scooter age marked the next stage in its tryst with travel. It became the Bajaj age because the Bajaj scooters gave a local habitation and a name to the new way we shortened space and quickened time. The company started the manufacture of Vespa under licence from Piaggio in the 1960s, it launched its Chetak in 1972 and Super in 1976. They dominated Indian roads in the 1980s and 1990s and became symbols of middle class aspirations.

The ‘Hamara Bajaj’ advertisements drove home the message of mobility in a new media age when television was breaking into families and the print media was expanding. A brand was born and it gained an iconic status with the owners flaunting it, aspirants waiting for delivery for years and millions  of miles being measured on wheels by a country on the move. Spatial mobility became social mobility, and Bajaj became its vehicle. But with the 90s came liberalisation, stiffer competition and a change in the tastes and expectations of people. Bajaj could not keep pace with the change of mood and did not innovate. Scooter sales started falling while the company concentrated on motor cycles. Krystal, launched in 2007, was the last product from the assembly line, which is being shut down now.

Though the Bajaj scooter is bowing out, the scooter market is not at the end of the road. Honda has moved into where Bajaj once ruled, though the growth figures are modest. The shift in modes of travel and brand perceptions can be signposts of changes in the economy, social attitudes and individual tastes. Scooters are no longer seen as family vehicles but as a feminine idea on the move. But are motor cycles more masculine? It is wrong to gender-stereotype machines but when they become extensions of humans social perceptions they colour descriptions. People and cultures also define themselves by the way they travel and aspire to travel. No wonder the ‘Hamara Bajaj’ ad had a nationalist strain too. The scooter held a mirror to a slice of India that has passed now, and profiled a class of Indians for many years.

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