At last, there is some high profile questioning about why the health of Sonia Gandhi, leader of India’s governing coalition, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), has been kept officially secret since the beginning of August when she was reported to have gone to New York for an operation believed to be for cancer. The question was publicly raised over the weekend in a cover story How ill is Mrs Gandhi? published by India Today, a weekly news magazine, which provides no new answers but in effect challenges the Gandhi family’s insistence on secrecy.
Coincidentally, Gandhi yesterday made her first public appearance (below) since returning from the US on September 8, when she attended events in Delhi that marked the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, India’s independence leader.
No one is questioning why Sonia Gandhi did not appear in public earlier after what is reported to have been an operation for first-degree cancer, but there is serious questioning abut whether – and why – India’s top politician should keep such an important illness and hospitalisation a secret. Alongside that, and maybe more significantly, why has the Indian media been loath to challenge that secrecy?
Gandhi’s singular political importance is beyond doubt. If there was any doubt earlier, it was confirmed while she was away by the UPA government’s erratic behaviour on the Anna Hazare anti-corruption movement and on-going telecoms scandal. On both issues, prime minister Manmohan Singh failed to exert the authority that should go with his job, while Rahul Gandhi, Sonia’s son and long seen as a future prime minister, failed to rise publicly to the challenge as heir apparent. Other key politicians such as home minister Palaniappan Chidambaram and telecom minister Kapil Sibal mishandled their briefs (and seriously damaged their reputations), while the four leading Congress Party figures Gandhi named as being in charge (including son Rahul) made no public impression. She was clearly missed.
She has now been back for just over three weeks, and some sense of normalcy appears to have returned to the running of the coalition.
However, that begs a question. Did the disarray while she was away develop because the government was missing her sure touch and gift of sensing what needed to be done politically, or because ministers and officials were scared to make decisions that might arouse her (or Rahul’s) wrath later? Or, as a political observer put it to me on Saturday, was it because the Gandhi dynasty has taken over normal governmental channels of authority and decision making to such an extent that the cabinet and administration cannot work without its leader at the head.
Whatever the answer – and maybe it was a mixture of all three – Gandhi has managed over the past 13 years that she has been engaged in active politics to build such an exclusive and untouchable aura of privacy and secrecy, combined with ultimate authority, that few people dare publicly to question her role or criticise the supremacy of the dynasty that she heads. It could be argued that this displays a high level of dynastic insecurity and fear of being unseated, which in turn would explain why the illness was – and still is – officially a secret.
Gandhi is of course an elected parliamentarian, so it would be wrong as well as unfair to compare her with a dictator. The acceptance however of her pre-eminent position, and that of the dynasty, would be envied by many less democratically based rulers, as would her ability to rule with a minimum of public utterances – she appears in public relatively rarely, and never makes herself available for the sort of public questioning faced by national leaders elsewhere.
Even Cuba’s ruler, Fidel Castro’s illnesses were publicly discussed in 2006. Politicians in the US are accustomed to public exposure, while Manmohan Singh’s heart bypass operation in 2009 was announced. Earlier however the illnesses of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the previous prime minister, were (and still are) largely kept private.
So even if one recognises that politicians like Gandhi will maintain as much privacy as they can muster, this still leaves the question of the Indian’s media’s largely hands-off response. It is true that the media here rarely reports on the private liaisons and even offspring of top politicians, but that is surely different from failing to explore the country’s top political leader going abroad for a life-threatening operation – Gandhi’s visit to the US for treatment was first reported by the international news media, and was then only lightly covered in India.
There was a good debate on some of the issues on India’s CNN-IBN tv channel on August 12, and a more recent article The omertà on Sonia Gandhi’s illness in The Hindu newspaper that mischievously, given Gandhi’s Italian origins, picked the Italian code of silence word omertà for its headline . The Business Standard newspaper also ran an editorial on Right to Information – Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s health is a matter of public concern on August 7.
Such scattered programmes and articles however scarcely amount to a real attempt to discover – either through an official spokesman or other sources – the nature and seriousness of the illness. Such disregard by the media of its proper role in guarding the public interest is surely not healthy for a democracy – nor on the other hand is the secrecy and aura that seems to have triggered that reaction.