In hindsight, we know that at the time of Independence, Pakistan’s Quaid-e-Azam MA Jinnah had advanced tuberculosis and died just over a year later on September 11, 1948. Jinnah’s illness was a closely guarded secret, known only to a small inner circle.
Today we ask: What if we had known back then? What would have been the course of history? Would India have been partitioned?
Nearly 70 years later, we remain just as clueless and in the dark about the true state of the health of our politicians.
In Tamil Nadu, speculation about the health of Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa, in hospital since September 22 for “fever and dehydration”, has gone from “she is running office from her hospital bed” to “ventilator support”. As a team of doctors from AIIMS rushes off to Chennai, Apollo Hospital says she is “responding well”. Tamil Nadu governor C Vidyasagar Rao also says “she is recovering well”, and her “personal friend for long”, former editor of The Hindu, Malini Parthasarthy tweeted that she is “certainly recovering & out of danger as seen by a close associate who visited her at hospital”.
These statements tell us nothing and do nothing to quell the wild conjecture. As devotees enact strange rituals including the piercing of their children’s cheeks, fake photographs and blood reports have gone viral. This past week, Chennai police booked a case against a woman for “spreading rumours” about Puratchi Thalaivi Amma’s health.
The Madras High Court has asked the government to provide clarity and, coincidentally, Apollo Hospital issued its most detailed statement soon after saying she was being treated with antibiotics and was on respiratory support.
Every decent Indian wishes Jayalalithaa a speedy recovery. But the lack of transparency and the resulting rumours about her health — including the legitimate question of who’s in charge of the party and the state — is worrying.
From former prime minister AB Vajpayee to Congress president Sonia Gandhi, politicians in India have rarely been forthcoming about their health, taking refuge in the argument that they are entitled to their privacy.
We still don’t know what ails Sonia Gandhi who this week made her first public appearance two months after she collapsed and injured her shoulder during a rally in Varanasi — though speculation about her health goes back further. In 2015 when Vajpayee received the Bharat Ratna from President Pranab Mukherjee at home, every newspaper and website carried the same photograph that strategically shielded his face. Why?
Are people in public life entitled to privacy? Hillary Clinton’s collapse during a 9/11 service led to worldwide speculation about her health. This wasn’t gossip but a legitimate question about the physical capabilities of someone running for office. Hillary had only herself to blame for not being more candid about a bout of pneumonia, leading to a needless debate about possible character flaws including a tendency to be secretive.
In India, media have happily colluded with politicians to protect “personal” details, including dalliances and romances. Do we as citizens have some god-given right to know if a minister has a mistress or two? I would say no, unless there is a conflict of interest or abuse of power. Are tickets being given, for instance, in lieu of sexual favours? Is a girlfriend’s relative getting an undue business advantage? We cannot even begin to answer these questions without first knowing the facts.
Where health is concerned, there can be no secrecy. There is an unstated, sacred pact between elector and elected. When I vote for a candidate, I assume that person is of sound health, physically and mentally. I don’t need blood, stool and urine reports. But if that person should fall ill and end up in hospital for close to two weeks, then, yes, I have the right to know. I have the right to know not just because it’s my taxpayer money but because in a democracy, people voted to office are accountable.
When someone in elected office refuses full disclosure on health, it is disrespectful to voters and to the idea of democracy itself.
The author tweets at @namitabhandare. The views expressed are personal.