The health of our leaders: The nation has a right to know
The health of our leaders must be open to scrutiny and should be part of public knowledge. Unfortunately, that has not always been in the case.
The health (or really the lack of it) of our politicians is a touchy topic in India. It either becomes a joke or it is not talked about. Neither position has served the country well.
The health of our leaders must be open to scrutiny and should be part of public knowledge.
In liberal western democracies, the health of a leader is a matter of public knowledge. Boris Yeltsin’s alcoholism for example was a public fact.
Indian politicians on the other hand have usually been cagey about their health. UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi was criticised for not making details of her illness public despite the fact that she ran the government.
The details of former prime minister Manmohan Singh’s heart bypass surgery were on the other hand shared with the public and India came up with a makeshift mechanism while he was admitted to Delhi's All India Institute for Medical Sciences (AIIMS).
BK Hariprasad’s statement on BJP president Amit Shah was in poor taste and people have missed the larger issue.
One has to acknowledge that the news of Amit Shah’s illness — he was admitted to Delhi's AIIMS on Monday with swine flu, Hariprasad said he had "suar ka zukhaam" — was not denied but instead confirmed by the party.
Even in the case of Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar, the details of his ailment were shared with the public with maturity and grace. Even Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj showed grace and political maturity in sharing with the public the details of the procedure she underwent.
This is recent.
On the other hand, the establishment seemed uneasy about discussing former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s knees after they became public knowledge.
If you look at Narendra Modi’s campaign both pre- and post-poll, a frugal diet and yoga remain the common themes of the conversation around his daily schedule. Despite being in his 60's, Modi was able to harness an image of good health as his ability to serve his country better.
As has Putin.
It is not as if exceptions do not exist. FDR, president of the US during WW2, was paralysed from the waist down but not many pictures of him can be found in the papers. He ensured that his disability did not become a political issue.
Serving US presidents have also battled disease. Ronald Reagan was successfully treated for both skin and colon cancer while in office.
In India, politicians hide details of their health lest it becomes a prism through which they are perceived by the public.
Even health fads become politicised.
I remember a conversation I had (as part of a larger group of journalists) with Prime Minister Modi at Arun Jaitley’s residence.
Modi was speaking about an outsider making it to the country's top post vis a vis Lutyen’s Delhi which works like a "deep society" and is not kind enough to accommodate the views of people who come from other parts of the country.
"Former prime minister Morarji Desai did many things for the country but he is only remembered for one thing,” Modi said. Obviously, he was referring to Morarji's practice of imbibing his own urine, or what we in our childhood would call "Morarji cola”.
Both mental and physical health are important for a leader, and the nation must know about the health of those who govern them. The argument that disease is a private issue does not hold water here because people holding high office must show that they are fit enough to rule.
That also ensures that the system is not run through proxy.
The maturity that India has show in the past (in making the details of its leaders' health public) should be encouraged. The only safeguard needed is that a disability by itself should not bar a person from holding high office — it has not in the past.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)