In a democracy do we have the right to know the full details of the health of our chief ministers and prime ministers? Or is their right to privacy greater than our need to know? To be honest, I’m amazed this question is being asked 70 years after we established our democracy. As far as I’m concerned the answer is short, simple and obvious. It’s yes.
However, Jayalalithaa’s mysterious illness and the resounding official silence surrounding it have brought this issue into sharp focus. It needs to be resolved, finally and firmly. Let me, therefore, explain my stand in favour of full disclosure and why I believe secrecy or silence is not just wrong but also self-defeating.
First, however, a bit of history. The precedents we have are, unfortunately, not just inconclusive but also contradictory. In 2009, when Dr Manmohan Singh, as prime minister, underwent heart surgery, detailed reports were made available on a daily basis. But in 2011, when Sonia Gandhi, then chairperson of the UPA, travelled abroad for treatment, the country was left deliberately and totally uninformed. Yet she was, at the time, arguably, the most important political leader in the country.
In the early 1980s, when MG Ramachandran, then chief minister of Tamil Nadu, was ill and flown abroad, little information was made available about his health. When the odd report was issued Karunanidhi, then leader of the opposition, called it “Hande pulugu, anda pulugu, aakasa pulugu” which, I believe, can be translated as “blatant lies of universal proportions”. I don’t doubt they were.
So whilst the silence surrounding Jayalalithaa’s mysterious illness may be mystifying, disconcerting and regrettable, it is, alas, in keeping with the practice and tradition established by MG Ramachandran and Sonia Gandhi. Dr Manmohan Singh was clearly the odd man out.
Now, the question is: Is this acceptable? Both politically and morally the answer is no. Politically, we not only have a right to know the full details of the health of our rulers but, in addition, we also need to be well informed because they hold high public office and their performance affects us. They cannot plead privacy and hide the actual state of their health.
This is why if Theresa May or Barack Obama were hospitalised their offices would make available comprehensive details of what was wrong, what treatment they were being given and the prognosis. Not for a moment would either of them disagree.
If they did the media would lambast them. In fact, it would throw all the resources it can muster to find out more than they have revealed. They would dig for details that have not been made public. In contrast, our media is almost complicit in accepting the official silence.
Next, the moral argument. It may sound tongue-in-cheek but I am, nonetheless, serious when I point out we’re repeatedly told by Jayalalithaa’s spokespersons she’s recovering yet don’t know what she’s recovering from! That’s bound to undermine the fullness of our wishes for a speedy recovery.
If they want us to pray for her recovery — and I, for one, am ready to do so — I need to know what she’s recovering from! Otherwise my prayers to the Good Lord will not only be incomplete but he’ll probably consider them bizarre and mysterious.
“Sweet Lord,” I would say on bended knees, “please let her recover.” “From what?” a loud booming voice from heaven is likely to respond. At that point I’d be truly stumped.