R. Gopalakrishnan brought to his work the commitment of a social activist, the discipline of a civil servant and the creativity of a wordsmith
I received with shock and grief the news of the passing away of R. Gopalakrishnan, an officer of the Indian Administrative Service, a former colleague in the Prime Minister’s Office, where he served as a joint secretary and later as an additional secretary, and a development policy strategist of exceptional talent and rare dedication to public service.
I feel the urge to pay tribute to his memory because it is necessary to place on public record the patriotic service that a good civil servant performs behind the closed doors of government offices. Often their work goes unrecognised publicly, even unrewarded professionally. The lives of millions of Indians have improved in the past decade because of the good work and professional creativity and commitment of an officer like Gopalakrishnan.
Gopal, as all his colleagues and friends called him, has of course been posthumously rewarded with a fine tribute from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, whom he served through his entire first term and well into the second term, despite his failing health in the latter period. In his condolence message, the Prime Minister acknowledged that Gopal “was the brain behind a number of flagship initiatives of the government.” The PM also said, “He had a very fertile mind and did not allow bureaucratic fetters to dull his creative instincts. I remember him for the single mindedness and the passion with which he pursued his ideas.”
I wish to place on record the fact that many of the key “flagship” programmes of the first United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government were not only conceptualised but also given administrative shape and direction by Gopal. He had a journalist’s knack for coining phrases aimed at capturing public imagination. The most important such concept developed by Gopal was “Bharat Nirman.”
Bharat Nirman was a development programme aimed at stepping up public investment and public-private partnership in the construction of rural roads, drinking water supply, rural telecommunication, rural housing and minor irrigation. Unlike some other flagship programmes which have been left with unpronounceable acronyms like MGNREGA, JNNURM and NRHM, “Bharat Nirman” struck a popular chord. Gopal was the creator of the term and the conceptualiser of the initiative.
His contribution to development began in Madhya Pradesh where he worked closely with non-government organisations from the all powerful Chief Minister’s Office and catalysed many development programmes and projects. He played a key role in Madhya Pradesh’s development, working closely with Digvijay Singh, the State’s Chief Minister for a decade. He supported the initiative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to launch State level Human Development Reports, and Madhya Pradesh led the way in this regard, thanks to him.
Gopal took keen interest in the launch of the National Knowledge Commission, though his pet obsession, a “National Library Mission” aimed at revitalising public libraries in towns and villages took a long time to be floated and has not yet had any impact on the ground. He was also actively involved in launching the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) and I recall clearly how excited he was when a suitable acronym was found for the new tier of community level health workers, the accredited social health activist (ASHA)! He was as excited as a journalist or brand manager would be when one thinks up a good headline or brand name.
Gopal combined in him the commitment of a social activist, the discipline of a civil servant and the creativity of a wordsmith. In that third capacity I found him a very helpful resource in drafting the Prime Minister’s speeches. We worked closely together in drafting the PM’s Independence Day speeches during UPA-1. He had the knack of imparting life to dull sounding government programmes and had the instincts of a politician in drafting speeches and crafting policies.
His premature demise leaves the Indian Administrative Service and the development community poorer. Hopefully his example will be a source of inspiration to younger officers.
(Sanjaya Baru is Director for Geo-economics and Strategy, International Institute for Strategic Studies, and Honorary Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.)