The omertà on Sonia Gandhi's illness

It is not surprising that the Congress should be secretive about its leader's health. What is surprising though is the news media's submission to the secrecy on an issue that is of public concern.

Updated - September 30, 2011 02:06 pm IST

Published - September 22, 2011 12:48 am IST

NEW DELHI,12/05/2010: UPA Chairperson and Congress President Sonia Gandhi at the swearing in ceremony of Chief Justice of India at Rashtrapati Bhavan, in New Delhi on May 12, 2010.

NEW DELHI,12/05/2010: UPA Chairperson and Congress President Sonia Gandhi at the swearing in ceremony of Chief Justice of India at Rashtrapati Bhavan, in New Delhi on May 12, 2010.

In February 2010, following a convention that the President of the United States will make public the results of his annual medical examination, the White House released details of President Barack Obama's first health check in office. This included his medication history, the doctor's recommendation that he follow a diet to reduce his cholesterol levels, and kick his smoking habit.

In the United Kingdom, there is no convention of revealing the medical histories of leaders. In September 2009, amid rumours about Prime Minister Gordon Brown's health, a BBC journalist asked him during an interview that was going out live on air if he was taking “prescribed painkillers and pills” to help him cope with his work pressures. The question angered the Labour Party, which described it as an “intrusion” into the Prime Minister's health. But within weeks, Downing Street took what The Guardian described as “the unusual step” of revealing the results of Mr. Brown's eye check-up that showed two tears in his retina. It said it was disclosing the information in the interest of “transparency” and to put an end to the rumours.

In India too, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had to undergo a heart surgery in early 2009, the government went public with details of his medical condition. On Sonia Gandhi's health, however, the silence continues even after her return from treatment for an illness that has not been made public — but is widely believed to be cancer of some kind.

All that the nation has been told is that almost immediately on her return, the Congress president chaired a party meeting to choose candidates for the Uttar Pradesh elections to be held early next year. No photographs of Ms Gandhi have appeared since her return; the media have used file photographs or old footage to announce that she is back in India after her treatment, and in reporting that she has resumed work as party president. The most recent photographs of her are from her visit to Bangladesh in early August.

Dr. Singh is perhaps among the handful of people who are informed about the state of Ms Gandhi's health. But officials in the Prime Minister's Office are not in the know. The Home Minister, the Home Ministry and the Intelligence Bureau also appear to have been kept out of the loop.

Her absence from India, from around August 4, the day the party first announced she had gone abroad, to September 8, when her arrival back was announced, coincided with a stormy period in national politics. Anna Hazare's hunger strike for the Jan Lokpal Bill plunged the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government into a crisis. The Congress needed all the leadership it could muster but stood exposed for having none. While it is debatable if Ms Gandhi could have steered the ship any better, Rahul Gandhi's late intervention by way of his speech in Parliament certainly failed to work the miracle that the Congress had hoped for.

The Gandhi family and the Congress party have dealt with Ms Gandhi's illness as a “personal matter” that requires no public explanation. True, politicians are entitled to privacy in matters of health. But this right to privacy cannot hold if it impacts on their work. Ms Gandhi has led the Congress for more than a decade; her party's election victories are credited to her leadership. The argument that Ms Gandhi does not hold high office, is not the head of the government, and therefore her illness is not a matter of public importance, hardly holds. Since 2004, she has been seen universally as the main power centre in the UPA. Clearly, several matters of national importance ride on her health, including her ability to lead the party into the next election, and the issue of succession in the Congress leadership, should this become necessary. These are not private matters.

The hush-hush is reminiscent of the secrecy that surrounded the condition of Leonid Brezhnev as the Soviet leader's health deteriorated through 1982. While the official line was that he was suffering from only a minor ailment, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had already worked out a line of succession.

On the other hand, we have the openness of former New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani's battle with prostate cancer, whose let's-talk-about-it attitude helped the cancer awareness campaign in the U.S. turn him into an iconic survivor of the disease. More recently, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez spoke publicly about his battle with cancer.

That the Congress should be secretive about Ms Gandhi's health is not surprising. What is surprising, though, is the omertà being observed by the news media, usually described by international writers as feisty and raucous. On this particular issue, reverential is the more fitting description. Barring editorials in the Business Standard and MailToday , no other media organisation has thought it fit to question the secrecy surrounding the health of the government's de facto Number One.

A similar deference was on display a few years ago in reporting Atal Bihari Vajpayee's uneven health while he was the Prime Minister. For at least some months before he underwent a knee-replacement surgery in 2001, it was clear he was in a bad way, but no news organisation touched the subject. Eventually, the government disclosed that he was to undergo the procedure, and it was covered by the media in breathless detail.

Both before and after the surgery, there was an unwritten understanding that photographers and cameramen would not depict Mr. Vajpayee's difficulties while walking or standing. Post-surgery, a British journalist who broke ranks to question if the Prime Minister was fit enough for his job (“Asleep at The Wheel?” Time , June 10, 2002) was vindictively hounded by the government.

Almost a decade later, much has changed about the Indian media, which now likes to compare itself with the best in the world. But it lets itself down again and again. The media silence on Ms Gandhi is all the more glaring compared with the amount of news time that was recently devoted to Omar Abdullah's marital troubles. The Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister's personal life has zero public importance. Yet a television channel went so far as to station an OB van outside his Delhi home, and even questioned the maid. The keyhole coverage ended only when an agonised Mr. Abdullah put out a brief statement about his separation and a request that he and his family be left alone.

Meanwhile, the media are clearly not in the mood to extend their kid-glove treatment of Ms Gandhi's illness to some other politicians: it has been open season with BJP president Nitin Gadkari's health problems arising from his weight. Clearly, it's different strokes for different folks.

This article has been corrected for a typographical error

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