It is a sad day for the Indian automobile industry, as it loses one of its most vocal, influential and visionary leaders, Jagdish Khattar. My first memory of meeting Mr Khattar goes back to December 1999. I had just joined NDTV, and it was my first week on the job. Due to a senior colleague not showing up, I – who had seemingly tagged along, was suddenly covering the launch of Maruti Udyog Limited’s next big thing – the first generation Wagon R tallboy hatchback. Mr Khattar spoke – and instantly you knew he had a keen understanding of the Indian car market, and its buyers. He spoke of the opportunities in a market that was poised for explosion. He was right. Subsequently, I got the chance to get to know him, personally and professionally over the years – and I always marvelled at his sharp wit, his ability to call a spade a spade, and his no-nonsense attitude. His fine way of speaking in chaste Hindustani was always something I admired too – as he was extremely respectful and eloquent – regardless of whom he may have been speaking with.
At our very first automobile awards – the NDTV car and bike awards 2006 – the Swift was the winner for Car of the Year. It was the first time I saw him let down his guard as the MD of mighty Maruti and enjoy himself to the fullest – celebrating the win with full gusto. He was always someone you could rely on for an opinion, advice or even perspective. We did not always agree, of course, and I can recall many times when he would call me angrily about a news story I may have done that he felt hurt Maruti or a car review which he felt was harsh!
Of many such times, I recall one instance in particular, where I had upset him over something. I sought time with him, and the next day, walked into the Jeevan Prakash Building off Delhi’s Kasturba Gandhi Marg, then the old office location of the newly minted Maruti Suzuki. Maruti’s then communications chief Kanwaldeep Singh escorted me to Mr Khattar’s room. He didn’t say much to me as we walked – but his expression seemed to convey “why did you stir the hornet’s nest?”! I realised the comms team had probably been in a conversation with Mr Khattar preceding my arrival. Sure enough, Mr Khattar was indeed worked up. But even in that – he presented his case clearly, and despite being upset, allowed me to state mine. Not only that, he then respected my opinion and said that we must agree to disagree and that it has no bearing on our otherwise robust professional relationship. Honestly, I had not seen that coming. I had seen him get passionate about stating his point of view before and even seen him get upset before. But that day I realised that while he could be stubborn, hold steadfastly to his views, he never once disrespected someone else’s. It set me on course to then be able to reach out to him often.
Born in pre-partition India, on December 18 1942, Mr Khattar belonged to a family of entrepreneurs. A Bachelor’s degree from St Stephens’ College, a subsequent Bachelor of Law, also from Delhi University, and then a prolific career with the Indian Administrative Services that lasted from 1969 to 1993. That was the year when he was called upon to join Maruti Udyog Ltd – by none other than Maruti stalwart and current Chairman, Mr R C Bhargava. I spoke with Mr Bhargava today, who very graciously told me, “Extremely sad that Jagdish (Khattar) has left us. He was an outstanding member of the IAS and I persuaded him to join Maruti, giving up his civil service career. He made a big contribution to the growth of Maruti. A wonderful human being and friend, he will be missed by all. God give him peace and strength to his family.”
Mr Khattar was credited with transitioning the company from simply being the monopolistic car maker to a credibly competitive company. CV Raman, Senior Executive Director, Engineering, Maruti Suzuki, remembers Mr Khattar as an ‘effervescent, enthusiastic and affable person, always impatient for results & change.’ He told me, “A Marketing man to the core, the transition and transformation of Maruti Udyog to Maruti Suzuki happened under his leadership as MD. Mr Khattar was instrumental in laying the foundation for many new strategic business initiatives & people practices in Maruti Suzuki. New Products including the World Car Swift were launched under his leadership. All these initiatives helped Maruti Suzuki retain its leadership position over the years.”
He began in marketing in 1993 and was appointed Managing Director in July 1999 as a government nominee. In 2003 when Maruti became a wholly-owned Suzuki subsidiary, the Japanese carmaker appointed Mr Khattar as MD as well, where he remained until his retirement in December 2007. He was at the helm of privatisation, public listing, and charting the company into a new direction of model development, expansion, and growth.
Saying his passing leaves a huge vacuum in the industry, Executive Director – Marketing and Sales at Maruti Suzuki India, Shashank Shrivastava shared, “I had the good fortune to work closely with Mr Khattar for many years through the changing scenario of Indian economy and the auto industry. He always spoke of embracing change and in turbulent times his guidance was even more sought. His deep understanding of consumers and his restlessness for doing things in a better way were remarkable. He encouraged the youngsters to speak up their viewpoints rather than just take orders.” Over the years, Maruti has been a training ground for many in the Indian automobile industry. Several key professionals today found their grounding there, and in many ways, that foundation is linked to Mr Khattar. Today the MD at Volvo Car India, Jyoti Malhotra was in Maruti from 2000 to 2008, and while not at the company HQ, found that Mr Khattar was deeply involved with those dispatched to the field. He says, “He was a legendary leader & a great human being. He was a mentor & role model to a lot of people at Maruti in his years there. It was a privilege to have worked closely with him, (and) I owe a lot to him for my progression. It’s a great loss for me and the industry.”
At our 2008 awards Jagdish Khattar received the Automotive Man of the Year – a tribute to all his hard work at Maruti. He knew that award was both personal and professional for me – and it was so for him too. His years after retiring from Maruti, were anything but inactive or less busy. His venture Carnation was deemed ambitious and ahead of the times – but that is clearly who he was too. He had other wrangles of the financial kind, and off late was vehement in his rejection of a recent CBI probe into his business. While many fall on either side of that argument, I will always believe Mr Khattar always had a good idea at the heart of whatever he did. There is no doubt he shall be missed sorely by many. This writer and many like me will miss his sharp mind, his quick wit and his keen insight – but most of all we shall miss a true gentleman – because they simply do not make them that way anymore. Go well, Mr Khattar – a vibrant industry salutes you, your spirit, your contribution and thanks you for shaping it.