It is common sense: If you are Sonia Gandhi, you can’t sneeze and not expect newspapers to carry the news that Sonia Gandhi has a cold. However, the party she heads seems to have strange notions about its leader’s privacy and they go to the extent of giving a tinge of mystery to even a cold.
But then Ms Gandhi has more than a common cold. What is to be done?
Stay silent on day one. Keep everything under wraps. That is what senior Congress leaders and parliamentarians did when the monsoon session began on August 1. Gandhi wasn’t there sitting next to the likes of Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee, P Chidambaram, Sharad Pawar and SM Krishna.
She didn’t turn up for the next two days either. The leaders of the ruling party still kept silent, and that sparked off rumours that “she is down with a throat infection or viral fever”.
Then came August 4 – just another day in the life of an Indian. Though it was already late, the official press statement from the All India Congress Committee (AICC) was brief: it said Gandhi is abroad after being “diagnosed with a medical condition that requires surgery”.
It was a briefing that was as short as short could get, but that sent ripples across the country. What was far more significant was perhaps the political “fine print”: that before she left, Gandhi set up a four-member panel to “manage the day-to-day affairs of the party during her absence”.
That set the cat among the pigeons and triggered a sea of questions: what is the nature of her ailment and which hospital is she admitted to? Does the stand-by panel – an unusual move in the Congress style book – indicate that her ailment is serious in nature that will require her to stay out of active politics for a while?
Then came the big question: does the inclusion of her son Rahul Gandhi among the four-member panel signal his takeover of the reins of India’s Grand Old Party? After all, he is from a family that has produced, so far, three Indian prime ministers and five Congress presidents.
Within hours, a few websites put out stories, saying Gandhi had been admitted to New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. For its part, the Congress party issued no official denial or confirmation. Another cryptic AICC statement on August 5 said doctors have indicated that her condition was stable after a successful operation. It also carried an appeal from her family to respect her privacy. The next day, party said she is out of the ICU.
Well, in democracies elsewhere they deal with the ailments of their leaders differently. But the Congress party was bent upon treating its leader’s illness as a personal affair along the lines of what you see in non-democracies. Some political analysts say this tendency, executed with skill, has contributed to Indian democracy’s enduring political legacy – “the Gandhi mystique”. Others attribute it to “palace secrecy” at the helm of the Congress party.
While the Gandhi family keeps appealing to people for respecting her “privacy”, she remains the president of the Congress, chairperson of the ruling UPA, besides being the power behind the throne of the prime minister.
In fact, it is an irony that when Manmohan Singh underwent a heart surgery during his first tenure as prime minister, AIIMS issued regular and detailed medical bulletins, a practice that was followed earlier when former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajayee underwent a knee-replacement surgery. The Time magazine had carried a detailed report on the multiple health problems of Vajpayee, which had then rattled the leadership of his party, the BJP.
As opposed to such disclosures, getting even a key-hole view into affairs on 10 Janpath has been tough, not only for the public but also for most Congressmen.
But suppression of information about the leader’s health doesn’t always help. There has been leakage of information – like when Gandhi was admitted for a few days in a Delhi hospital twice last year for what was described as her “asthma problem”. She was abroad when, during his visit, British Prime Minister David Cameroon was to meet her – again, the party came up with the explanation that she was “attending to her ailing mother”.
What the Congress seems unable to understand is that by zealously suppressing news of the country’s most powerful person, wild rumours are guaranteed. Economic Times