Sonia Gandhi's health can't be a state secret. It's not about privacy

Sonia Gandhi's surgery highlights an Indian affliction: our willingness to live in denial about our leaders' health. But is the health of critical political or business leaders a matter of privacy and of concern only to family members? Especially, when so much depends on them?

R Jagannathan August 05, 2011 11:46:08 IST
Sonia Gandhi's health can't be a state secret. It's not about privacy

There are only questions, and no answers so far, on Sonia Gandhi’s illness that required a surgery.

One, how can the nation’s most powerful political leader, virtual chief executive of the ruling party, not let us know that there was something for us to be concerned about?

Two, how is it that when so many people knew about it—her immediate family, close political advisors, doctors and hospital staff, and personal attendants—the media never got a whiff of it? And if it did, why did it choose to keep so quiet about it?

Sonia Gandhis health cant be a state secret Its not about privacy

Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Courtesy PIB

Three, is news about the illness or medical condition of the people who run our country a state secret? When the main reason for keeping a PM out of Lokpal is that the top executive should not be distracted by nitpicking concerns, is it legitimate to have our No. 1 political leader being unfit through illness?

Four, what makes us—as a people—particularly afraid to learn the truth about our leaders’ medical condition, whether it is politicians or businessmen? Are we happier living in a state of denial?

Five, why is it that even when we do know something now, there is a strange reluctance to reveal the full truth. A Congress party statement merely said: “Sonia Gandhi has been recently diagnosed with a medical condition that requires surgery. On advice from her doctors, she has travelled abroad and is likely to be away for two to three weeks.”

That’s it? At a time when the newspapers are already speculating that the operation is over, we are merely told by the party that she left for the US. For God’s sake, she is not away on vacation that she needs this privacy. What if she had actually been the PM? Would she just have left the country with Rahul without telling anyone?

There is something clearly wrong with us – and it’s not about Sonia Gandhi. A similar thing happened when Manmohan Singh’s angioplasty suddenly surfaced as a problem in January 2009. We came to know about Singh’s coronary bypass and previous heart problems of the 1990s only in 2009.

Even when Singh went under the scalpel, the party in power made no effort to clarify the chain of command by appointing a caretaker PM. What if Pakistan had launched another Kargil that day? Would a de facto No. 2—Pranab Mukherjee —have sufficed without the formal authority of a PM? Or would we have spent the first day of war electing a leader?

The same thing happened with Atal Bihari Vajpayee. A few months after losing his premiership in 2004, he took mysteriously ill and nobody—not the party, not the people—knew anything about it. Whoever knew chose to keep quiet.

To say that he is anyway not PM now is no excuse for silence. What if the same illness was dogging him when he was PM? What if we had a chief executive who was not fully fit, or worse, had moments of mental disability or some other debilitating affliction? What if this had been the case even when we were fighting Kargil?

In the US, the health of the president is not a matter of private concern. Every candidate makes it a point to declare his fitness, especially if he is a bit older and, thus, more likely to be susceptible to some form of disability or disease. In fact, US candidates go out of their way to show they are fighting fit by getting themselves filmed jogging or playing strenuous games.

When he was a candidate for the presidency in 2008, John McCain produced volumes of medical records to show he was fit. The records showed that he had a healthy heart and had cancerous melanomas removed four times.

It is, of course, easy to dismiss non-disclosure of illness as a privacy issue. This is what the Congress party is claiming today, having been stunned by Thursday’s announcement. But this argument does not wash. The health of the head of the country’s political formation is not a private matter. Her party, her government, her country have to know if something is wrong, and what it is.

And it’s not about politicians alone. Employees and shareholders need to know if their chief executives are fit to perform. The case of Steve Jobs is instructive. Everyone knows what Jobs’ value is to Apple – which is why the company allowed him a six-month leave of absence three times to allow him to fight his ailment.  Andy Grove, the iconic former boss of Intel, wrote volumes about his fight with cancer. He didn’t keep quiet.

But in India? Shareholders and the public knew little about Dhirubhai Ambani’s health till the end. Everybody could see he was not in great health when he appeared at the company’s annual general meeting, but nobody said anything about it. The press, which went into paroxysms of anger when confronted with his barely-legal initiatives, was completely mum about his illness.

Aditya Birla’s fight against cancer was known only to close family members almost till the very end.

Today, it is quite apparent that Ratan Tata has his share of medical problems. But do the shareholders of the country’s biggest business house know anything about his medical problems?

The problem of keeping health a secret is clearly an Indian affliction. We try to keep the truth away from all till it is impossible to hide it, and this is what we should be concerned about in a modern democracy. When you know, you can be better prepared.

But can there be good reasons for powerful people to keep their state of health hidden?

A case in point is Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s health just before partition. We know now that he was dying even as he was getting his Pakistan. But would Indian leaders have played the game differently if they had known that? Maybe, it could have changed the course of history?

But the chances are when you head a movement, it is not the individual that matters, but the mood. It is highly unlikely that even if Jinnah had died before freedom, and Congress leaders knew about it, the course of history would have changed. This was proved when Jinnah died. The country lurched even more to the right. In fact, the probability is that Jinnah was our best hope of avoiding partition – and we blew it.

Business leaders, like Jobs or Ambani, fret that telling shareholders the whole truth can be injurious to share prices. Moreover, it could lead to speculation about who will succeed the big boss, and make the second line of managers edgy about the future.

This is certainly true, but is that not the case even in an Infosys, where we know a Narayana Murthy is going to retire? In any case, has speculation about Jobs' health not affected the price?

These are uncertainties and transitions that cannot be avoided. Getting to know something enables us to mentally prepare for a succession or the future. Not knowing can lead to shocks that we can do without.

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