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For some reason, /gazebo/set_model_configuration (as mentioned in this answer didn't work.)

However, I did discover the that gazebo_ros spawn_model supports specifying initial joint position. However, it must be done while physics is paused.

Here's the required snippets of the launch file

<include file="$(find gazebo_ros)/launch/empty_world.launch">
    <arg name="world_name" default="worlds/"/>
    <arg name="paused" value="true"/>
    <arg name="gui" value="$(arg gui)"/>

<node name="spawn_gazebo_model" pkg="gazebo_ros" type="spawn_model" args="-urdf -unpause -param robot_description -model robot -z 0.0 -J elbow_joint -1.57" respawn="false" output="screen" />