The 'face' of Congress, as it manifests itself in public and virtual spaces, comprises everyone from the baffling Rahul Gandhi and the impassive Manmohan Singh to a bristling Chidambaram or a verbose Renuka Chowdhury. Very few people, who pull several important strings in the party's functioning, are considered to be hidden from public and media glare. We know about Rahul Gandhi and Jyotiraditya Scindia's camaraderie, we have a thesaurus of jokes on Sonia-Manmohan's employer-retainer relationship.
Non-party players like Montek Singh Ahluwalia and Sam Pitroda also keep making their way into news and views. However, the party seems to have a bunch of well-kept secrets. Like Dr G Mohan Gopal, former head of the National Judicial Academy, former member of SEBI and former Vice Chancellor of NLSIU.
According to a report on The Economic Times, the present director of the Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Contemporary Studies, a think-tank funded by the Congress, is the man behind Rahul Gandhi's revamp plans for the Youth Congress. He is also one of the key policy advisors to Rahul and is now a part of the coordination committee constituted by Gandhi junior.
As he made his first significant political appearance in the Congress' conclave, he demonstrated why Rahul keeps going back to him for advice. ET notes:
The rest of his speech on food security was an impassioned defense of what he termed as “a fight against hunger”. Not one person attending the talk had any doubts that they were encountering the bleeding heart liberal at the centre of Rahul Gandhi’s coterie. Someone who was occupying an important space in the Congress vice president’s team.
Gopal who holds a masters and a doctorate degree in law from Harvard University, had led important consulting positions in the Asian Development Bank, UNDP and the World Bank, among others. His long career with the Indian bureaucracy includes roles in the UGC, Kerala State Planning Board, Government of India's (Knowledge Commission] Committee on Legal Education, Prime Minister’s Oversight Committee on Affirmative Action (Reservations) in National Government Educational Institutions and SEBI.
Given the innumerable allegations of corruption that the party has been riddled with in the recent past, Gopal's association with the Congress might seem ironic to many. Especially since Gopal made media headlines in 2010 when he wrote an explosive letter to the Prime Minister alleging the several malpractices stalking the government's guardian of investments, the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi).
In his letter, Gopal had reported an "informal clique of current and serving bureaucrats, Sebi officials, lawyers and corporate interests orchestrated a subversion of the due process of law".
A Moneylife report from 2011 says Gopal had stirred a hornet's nest when he pointed out several discrepancies in the way Sebi functioned under its chief CB Bhave, the dubious legal framework adopted by Sebi for securities regulation and how the board had bypassed a fair legal procedure and exempted the National Securities Depository Limited (which was named in the IPO scam) from paying crores of rupees in fine.
Gopal, in a consequent interview to the Business Standard, had said that though Sebi chairman Bhave came out of the scandal without losing much, he was happy to have raised pertinent questions about the functioning of important financial institutions of the country. he said, "It raises very serious structural questions. I don’t want to point finger at anyone. My intention is that public opinion should be created in support of corrective policy reform."
The ET article calls Gopal an old-school reformist of sorts with left of centre ideals that propel several actions of Rahul Gandhi's new-look Youth Congress.
In a crisis of leadership where prospective voters are wary of the old faces of Congress and might shift political allegiance only because they can't bank on the existing faces of the government, Gopal might be a good bet for the Congress. ET notes that his influence is obvious in the way Youth Congress leaders are trained.
Economists of the Right and Left persuasion were sourced from academia in Delhi to lecture young Congressmen on different viewpoints on FDI in retail, a topic being debated hotly in the Parliament.
In fact, Gopal comes across as a person who defends the government zealously, but admits to the flaws in the system generously too.
In a climate where Congress' biggest adversary is popular distrust, the only way the party can men burnt bridges is by accepting its shortcomings and then announcing a plan for further progress. Also, like Rahul Gandhi has tried doing in the past, it could be a good ploy to emphasise the fact that the socio-economic problems of a country with India's dimensions can't be erased overnight. Maybe then the electorate will be able to appreciate the measures taken by the government.
Though Rahul Gandhi has not been able to successfully follow the same in his public addresses, the only option Congress has now is to counter hyperbolic political rhetoric with pragmatism mixed with humility. Much in the way Gopal raised questions about the Sebi's functioning and also reiterated the fact that the finance ministry as a whole was not on the wrong foot. He said in the BS interview:
"It appears that the finance ministry has acted firmly now. To me, at a time when we are all talking of corruption by the political class, this is an instance that indicates a serious threat to governance is collusion among bureaucrats, lawyers, companies and even sections of the media, especially in the financial sector. When such collusions take place at the bureaucratic level, the top political level of the finance ministry could be easily misled. This needs to be corrected structurally."
Another line of criticism against the Congress has been how the UPA government has muddled the growth rates of the country. A difficult allegation to counter, but Gopal does a fairly good job of doing it in this interview. He says:
Our republic was established not to pursue and achieve high levels of growth but to secure justice for all. That means we have to adopt strategies that promote equality, justice, liberty and fraternity. The challenge here is to ensure that equitable growth takes place... There is almost no option for India but to pursue growth in a manner that is compatible with the interests and concerns of its poorest and most excluded people, and not exclusively cater to creating more wealth for its already wealthy citizens.
While this defence might not be the best that can be offered, it at least sings a different tune than the 'money doesn't grow on trees' chorus started by Manmohan Singh and dutifully followed by Rahul Gandhi in several speeches. Gopal has also zealously defended the government by raising questions on the CAG's appropriation of the coal scam in legal terms and praised the much-criticised Food Bill as 'a fight against hunger'. In an Indian Express editorial Gopal said:
The CAG appears to have mistaken the Central government-chaired screening process that was introduced in 1993 to facilitate and expedite the licensing process prior to states receiving and processing applications for mining licences, for the actual selection of licencees and the grant of mining licences. The CAG failed to recognise that this screening process was merely that — a screening process of applications.
With the Congress running out of voices that are still heard and incite healthy debate, is it time to bring G Mohan Gopal to the forefront and let him oversee social media initiatives of the party?