Why secrecy and mystery often surround the health of Indian politicians

India's political leaders have traditionally refused to be transparent about their ailments and medical treatments for fear that their political foes could use it as a chance to undermine them.
Jayaram Jayalalithaa, leader of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), at a swearing-in ceremony as chief minister of Tamil Nadu state in Chennai on May 23, 2016. Ms Jayalalithaa’s health has kept the rumour mill in overdrive amid speculation of her poor health. Arun Sankar/AFP Photo
Jayaram Jayalalithaa, leader of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), at a swearing-in ceremony as chief minister of Tamil Nadu state in Chennai on May 23, 2016. Ms Jayalalithaa’s health has kept the rumour mill in overdrive amid speculation of her poor health. Arun Sankar/AFP Photo

NEW DELHI // For three days, Tamil Nadu’s chief minister has been undergoing treatment at one of Chennai’s finest hospital.

But, as ever with Indian politicians, the true state of J Jayalalithaa’s health is cloaked in mystery.

Ms Jayalalithaa, 68, was admitted to the Apollo Hospital on Thursday, and doctors said she was suffering from fever and dehydration.

The lack of clarity surrounding Ms Jayalalithaa’s health is part of a tradition in Indian politics, where leaders have refused to be transparent about their ailments and medical treatments for fear that their political foes could use it as a chance to undermine their authority.

Almost all of the chief minister’s cabinet was present on the premises, and members of her All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) thronged the hospital on Friday and Saturday, many of them spending their nights on the pavement.

Media reports, meanwhile, said that Ms Jayalalithaa would fly to Singapore for further treatment – a claim denied by the party’s spokesperson, C R Saraswathi.

“It is false information. She is not going anywhere,” Ms Saraswathi told the Press Trust of India on Saturday. “She will soon return home.”

Ms Saraswathi said Ms Jayalalithaa’s fever had abated, and that she was “very well”.

For months now, the AIADMK has been denying – or remaining silent about – rumours of Ms Jayalalithaa’s poor health.

In July 2015, after she skipped eight straight days of work at her secretariat, India’s Telegraph newspaper reported that Ms Jayalalithaa had failing kidneys and toes that were turning gangrenous because of a longtime diabetic condition.

M Karunanidhi, the 92-year-old chief of the rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, said in a speech at the time that Ms Jayalalithaa’s “health is not good enough to discharge her duties”.

In response, Ms Saraswathi pointed out that her party never brought up the frequent visits by Mr Karunanidhi’s son, the politician M K Stalin, to the United States, allegedly for medical care.

“Do not do politics with an individual’s health,” Ms Saraswathi said.

Last December, as Chennai suffered from unprecedented floods, Ms Jayalalithaa rarely appeared in public, prompting further speculation about her health.

Given that Tamil Nadu is facing elections to municipal bodies in October, the AIADMK is wary of being routed over a question of its leader’s health again – fearing the precedent of Ms Jayalalithaa’s mentor, M G Ramachandran, said Badri Seshadri, a Chennai-based political analyst.

In the late 1980s, the AIADMK “became insecure” when Ramachandran fell ill and thought “they would lose the next election if he died or even if voters knew he was gravely unwell”, said Mr Seshadri.

After his death in December 1987, the party did indeed lose its next election, Mr Seshadri pointed out.

Whispers of illness or death must be avoided, because they can set off chaos or infighting within the party, Mr Seshadri said.

The Congress Party, for instance, has never confirmed that its president Sonia Gandhi has been treated for cancer, even though multiple media reports in August 2011 said that she was undergoing surgery in New York.

This tradition of silence dates right back to India’s independence. In June 1946, 14 months before the partition of British India, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League, was diagnosed with an advanced case of pulmonary tuberculosis.

Jinnah was still fighting for the creation of an independent Pakistan at the time, and he worried that if knowledge of his severe illness leaked out, the Muslim League would find itself without a leader, its demands ignored and its secondary leaders co-opted.

“Jinnah knew that if his Hindu enemies learnt he was dying, their whole political outlook could change,” Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre wrote in their book Freedom at Midnight. “They might wait until he was in his grave, then unravel his dream with the more malleable men underneath him in the hierarchy of the [Muslim] League.”

Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, also hid a period of illness from the public. Doctors had advised Nehru to take three to six months of absolute rest, his sister Vijayalakshmi Pandit wrote in a letter to Lord Louis Mountbatten, India’s last viceroy and a friend of the family. But she worried that the political consequences of revealing his illness would be profound.

“A whispering campaign is going on to the effect that the [prime minister] has lost his grip on the cabinet – that he cannot think clearly, cannot make decisions and so on,” she wrote. “The talk is about succession and nothing else.”

When prime minister Manmohan Singh underwent a heart bypass in 2009, the government released the news less than 24 hours before the surgery took place.

“The power flows from these leaders, which is the reason why parties are reluctant to reveal the truth in such cases,” Mr Seshadri said. “Any uncertainty at all is bad for the party, so they just reveal nothing at all.”

ssubramanian@thenational.ae

Published: September 25, 2016 04:00 AM

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