Professor Gourav Vallabh's trillion dollar question

Updated: Sep 22, 2019, 07:55 IST | Jane Borges | Mumbai

Cong's Prof Gourav Vallabh who went viral after he challenged BJP's Sambit Patra with a '5 trillion' question on fighting the tough fight as a member of the Opposition.

Gourav Vallabh. Pic/Suresh Karkera
Gourav Vallabh. Pic/Suresh Karkera

For months now, Ramit Verma, creator of Peeing Human, has been taking on the establishment in hilarious meme videos, which mock the antics of the "desh bhakts" and "Godi media". Verma rarely makes a hero out of anyone, except for his home favourite, journalist and Ramon Magsaysay Award winner Ravish Kumar. Last week, however, a surprise Candidate No. 2 emerged in Professor Gourav Vallabh, the national spokesperson of the Indian National Congress. A seven minute-long video titled Sambit Patra (Cong) versus Sambit Patra (BJP), uploaded by Verma, shows Vallabh taking down the BJP's media panelist Patra one question at a time, in a live Hindi news channel debate on the completion of 100 days of the Modi government. "Yeh batao, trillion mein kitne zeroes hote hain?" Vallabh is seen asking Patra in the video, referring to PM Narendra Modi's plans to make India a USD 5 trillion economy by 2024. Not only did Patra draw a blank, his silly whataboutery made him the butt of Internet jokes. Vallabh, on the other hand, became a social media star overnight.

"I have done better debates before. To be honest, I was only doing my job," admits an amused Vallabh in a telephonic interview from Gurugram. "As a professor [of finance], it irritated me no end to constantly hear the ruling party throw this five trillion figure at the janta. Also, how is this figure going to change your life or mine? My reaction was instinctive. It didn't come from a place of testing the IQ of the gentleman who I was debating with. I just wanted to convey how ill-prepared he was," adds Vallabh, who says he researches for at least six hours before participating in any panel or media discussion.

His CV makes him a natural candidate to question the government on its economic policies. A certified financial risk manager, 42-year-old Vallabh teaches finance at XLRI, Jamshedpur—one of the country's premier B-Schools. Apart from authoring several publications, he has also worked at Pune's National Institute of Bank Management, a think-tank affiliated with the RBI and was the director of Institute of Chartered Accountants of India in New Delhi.

Hailing from a family of academicians, teaching was always part of Vallabh's plan. "It's one of the reasons I didn't take up a hardcore corporate job, although, I had all the qualifications for it." Politics, he says, happened when the environment in the country began to change. In 2017, while the professor was in the US for a brief teaching programme, news of lynching by cow vigilantes back home, disturbed him enough to write a letter to former Congress president Rahul Gandhi and senior party leader Randeep Surjewala, asking if he could contribute to the party in any way. "I believe in a free-liberal, intellectual and secular society. The party that was purely aligned with my ideology and thought process was the Congress," he says. Surjewala immediately wrote back to him. "After we met, and I shared my ideas with him, things moved very fast," he recalls.

On January 31, last year, Vallabh was appointed national media panelist. By the end of year, he was on the roster of key national spokespersons from the party. "When I joined the Congress, my goal was clear. My political ambition has never been to become something. If that was the case, I wouldn't have joined a party that was in the Opposition. I am a professor at XLRI, and I am very satisfied with my job. I wanted to do something for the society," he says. "I feel sad when senior leaders such as Jayant Sinha garland lynchers [In 2018, the former union minister met eight people convicted in the Ramgarh lynching case in Jharkhand at a BJP event and garlanded them]. There have been debates where people have told me: 'Ja masjid chala ja'. This is not the kind of India, I was born into." Vallabh says he is as much a Hindu, as anyone else. "But religion is very personal. Why should I go in front of a camera and say I am a great devotee of Lord Ram?"

As a spokesperson, he wants to play the role of an effective Opposition. "Congress has always worked at being a constructive Opposition. We also need to be able to communicate the work that we are doing as a party. Unfortunately, we are not able to disseminate our ideology to the last person in society." The government, he says, has taken complete control of this narrative. "The economy is currently in doldrums. And they [the government] won't listen to us [the Opposition]. We have suggested so many reforms to remonetise the country, but nothing is being done. You ask them anything, and they chant, 'Bharat Mata Ki Jai'. India has a bright career, but we are falling behind, because of their mistakes."

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