Sushma Swaraj's tweet on kidney failure sets her apart from peers and predecessors

The External Affairs Ministry under Sushma Swaraj is known to have developed a speedy grievance redressal system on Twitter. Her candid tweets and quick responses on the microblogging site has been appreciated all along.

Swaraj, however, took to Twitter on Wednesday to inform the nation about her health.

She was admitted to the Aiims due to kidney failure and underwent tests for a transplant, but the doctors said the procedure may take some time as a donor was yet to be found. Swaraj has been suffering from diabetes for a long time, which could have damaged her kidneys.

After Swaraj tweeted about her health, there was a flood of "get well soon" wishes from politicians and also people from a cross section of society. Some even offered to donate a kidney to her.

Sushma Swarajs tweet on kidney failure sets her apart from peers and predecessors

File photo of Sushma Swaraj. AFP

However, many saw her announcement as setting new standards of transparency, as politicians are usually not forthcoming about divulging details of their health condition.

According to a report in The Indian Express, JDU leader KC Tyagi said,  “Some leaders hide their disease fearing that this may lessen their grip on the family and the party. Those who live with simplicity and integrity in public life are not afraid of going to the public. Her life is like an open book. I greet her for her open stand.” The same article also quotes Aiims spokesperson stating that Swaraj's decision to divulge her medical condition in first person was "a first" for a politician that he has seen.

In the long list of our ailing netas, Swaraj indeed sets a precedence. In fact, her candidness inadvertently reminds us of the veil of privacy surrounding the health status of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa during her recent bout of illness from which she is yet to fully recover.

Jayalalithaa was admitted into the Apollo Hospital on 22 September for an unspecified ailment, where she remained for over a month. Whatever did trickle out in the public domain amid a slew of rumours — and thereafter through the hospital's press briefings — was that Amma was suffering from pneumonia and a chronic lung infection. What ensued was a high-drama narrative emanating from  the southern Indian state as rumours of her death started doing the rounds.

What this opacity in revealing real and credible information does is it gives wings to rumours and generates mass hysteria. As happened in the case of Jayalalithaa's illness, police was asked to quash the rumours emanating from the virtual world. But that did not stop panicking AIADMK cadre from attempting self-emulation, which even resulted in the death on one person.

Neither did it ease the sense of an impending doom amid the masses. Somehow, a feeling persisted that something was amiss and the entire truth was not being revealed. Mass prayers for her speedy recovery were organised, while several Amma loyalists went without food for days. As they still did not get the news of their beloved leader's speedy recovery, some supporters devised even more innvative (read bizarre) ways of pleasing the gods. An Amma supporter, reportedly pierced his skin with thick hooks and hung himself from a crane, according to a report in The News Minute. Even children were not spared, as reports surfaced that some kids had their faces pierced with metal rods to pray for Amma's speedy recovery.

Political fervour has always bordered on irrationality in the state, largely known for its cult politics. The clampdown of information with an iron hand, though perfectly within an individual's right to privacy, is a problematic concept especially in such cases.

However, the tradition to shroud a political leader's health condition predates Jayalalithaa or Swaraj's tenure. It is till date a matter of debate whether the Indian subcontinent's history would have been any different had Mohammad Ali Jinnah's cancer been common knowledge at the time of India-Pakistan partition.

"By the time Mountbatten came to India as Viceroy in 1947 Jinnah was dying; he would be dead in 1948. Neither the British nor the Congress suspected the gravity of Jinnah's illness. Many years later Mountbatten confessed that had he known he would have delayed matters until Jinnah was dead; there would have been no Pakistan," according to an excerpt from the book Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity - The Search for Saladin, posted by The New York TimesJinnah, it is believed, willfully kept his illness a secret as he believed that after him, the more malleable row of leaders in the All India Muslim League will relent under Congress' pressure and his dream for a separate Pakistan would never be a reality.

Jinnah's Indian counterpart, Jawaharlal Nehru also was very secretive of his illness around his last days, as he believed it would give rise to a tussle for succession within the ranks of a party he has held united till then. As pointed out in this NDTV article, Nehru's sister Vijaylakshmi Pandit wrote a letter to Lord Mountbatten expressing her worry of the political consequences of Nehru's illness.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi makes for a more recent example as she has been frequently flying out of the country for unexplained medical reasons. Rumours were abound when Sonia underwent a surgery in August 2011 for an unspecified form of cancer. This article in Sunday Times from the time also states "the refusal of the ruling Congress party to divulge information has raised some uncomfortable questions about transparency in the world's biggest democracy." In fact there was a dedicated Quora thread where people discussed and speculated what could be wrong with Sonia, who was the most powerful woman in India at the time.

For public figures, especially mass leaders, admitting an ailment is like conceding that they are not infallible and indispensable: it requires both courage and humility, because an admission of illness is an admission of vulnerability. Another reason why politicians are secretive of their health is because they fear it will hurt their political career, influence election results, or simply make them dispensable from the current role amid a scrambling tussle for succession.

An individual's health is 100 percent a private matter. After all, there is a reason the doctors are administered the oath to secrecy. But having said that, one cannot but be admiring of a public figure who chooses to do that.

Besides this, those in public service are at least answerable to the masses to the point that whether they are fit to discharge their duties. The Sunday Times article also quotes senior journalist Siddharth Varadarajan as saying, "When you are in the public domain, you cannot claim the benefits of privacy of the private citizen... I think it is something that people have the right to know."

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Updated Date: Nov 17, 2016 18:20:03 IST

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