Capturing Indian hearts

Capturing Indian hearts

Making its entry in 1983, this little car went on to capture a major share of the Indian car market, quickly earning its epithet of Maruti Udyog’s ‘bread and butter’ car.

The car has largely remained the same, except for one major modification in the external body shell in 1988, and the change-over from carburettor to multi-point fuel injected (MPFI) engines in 1999.

Now, in 2010, 27 years after the first little car rolled out, R C Bhargava, the present Chairman of Maruti, has written this account, along with journalist Seetha, on how the company grew to become an icon. The book traces the complex struggles that a small band of determined individuals faced before the car could roll out.

The Maruti 800 began as the late Sanjay Gandhi’s dream of making a people’s car for Indians. He had even applied for a license for manufacturing cars, and started a company called Maruti Motors, with land being allotted in Gurgaon, (where the present Maruti still has a manufacturing base). But commercial manufacturing of cars never took off. Funnily enough, the factory started making road-rollers and bus-bodies (under the name of Maruti Heavy Industries), and business thrived in the Emergency era with municipal bodies and state governments placing orders.

After Sanjay’s death in a plane crash in 1980, his mother, the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was determined to see that his dream came true. Mrs Gandhi sought the services of her relative Arun Nehru, and her son Rajiv Gandhi, for the project. As Bhargava writes, Rajiv and Arun “between them... took ruthless, hard decisions without wasting any time...”

It was Arun Nehru who told Mrs Gandhi that the project would be possible only if foreign technology was used as part of a joint venture. It is now mind-boggling to think that a Japanese car manufacturer had the gumption of tying up with an Indian public sector company in order to make a small car that would sell in huge volumes.

It was not simply the putting together of a labour force to make a car. The real builders of Maruti — Osamu Suzuki and the Japanese, on the one side, and V Krishnamurthy, R C Bhargava and the Indians on the other — had to work really hard to first change the ‘public-sector’ work ethos of the Indian work-force. The Indian Public sector companies were notorious for over-staffing and over-spending.

Until the appearance of Maruti on the Indian horizon, the market was ruled by a few major players — Hindusthan Motors, with its Ambassador car, and Premier Motors, (Premier Padmini), and the smaller Standard Motors (Standard Herald). This was the choice for the customer, and the waiting time for these cars often ran into several months.

Backroom consultations, the conducting of the first ever market survey by a public sector company to ascertain what kind of a car the Indian public needed, the decision to scrap the initial choice of a Renaultmodel based on the survey, the initial interest of other car manufacturers like Volkswagen, Daihatsu, Peugeot, Nissan/Subaru and Mitsubishi are all described in this book. But it is by no means an exciting account, although the writers have included all the major twists and turns that have now become part of Indian, and indeed world automobile history. It has been written in a dry, understated manner.

But the staid account does not take away from the beauty of the sheer chance of a Japanese director of Suzuki Motor Company (SMC) reading a magazine article (when he was taking a flight from Chennai to Delhi) about the possibility of Daihatsu, Suzuki’s archrival, walking away with the Maruti collaboration. He alerted his headquarters, and that was how SMC entered the Indian picture.

History will record that the Maruti success story paved the way for a revolution in the Indian motorcar market, and several successful international brands owe their success in India to these pioneers. And this is how the Indian masses, today, enjoy the choice of so many different makes of cars - a far cry from the days of the Ambassador and the Premier Padmini.

Ironically, Bhargava’s book has appeared after Maruti Suzuki India recently announced that it would bring the curtains down on the Maruti 800. Maruti heralded a number of changes in India’s economic and industrial policies, and from that point of view, this book is a fascinating account of a momentous moment in Indian and world history.

R C Bhargava, who has been associated with the project since its inception as a mere idea, deserves full credit for recording this for posterity.

The maruti story
R C Bhargava & Seetha
HarperCollins, 2010, pp 383, Rs 499

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