Sonia Gandhi’s Illness and the Limits of Political Privacy

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India's Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi in 2010 (Photo: AFP / Getty Images)

Sonia Gandhi, leader of the Congress Party and India’s most powerful politician, has been out of the country for more than 10 days, opening the door to political attacks and a fevered game of Rahul-watching. On Aug. 4, the Congress Party revealed — just barely — that its leader had gone abroad to have treatment for an undisclosed medical condition. The Gandhi family enjoys a deference usually reserved for gods and kings, and it has been on full display in the Indian media since the announcement of her illness. Nearly all of the national daily newspapers and television channels granted her request for privacy and have not pushed for details about her health or even her exact location, citing security concerns.

There were a few exceptions. The Deccan Herald, citing unnamed sources, says that she is being treated for cervical cancer at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. (The Congress Party has refused to confirm this.) The Economic Times, meanwhile, questioned the decision to keep the public in the dark, calling it “baffling.” A subsequent editorial argued: “The sort of secrecy that the Congress has resorted to over Mrs Gandhi’s health is reminiscent of practices behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.”

That’s not exactly right. Gandhi’s insistence on privacy is, in part, a privilege she enjoys thanks to her unique political position. She is the leader of the largest party in Parliament and of the ruling coalition government, but she chose not to take the post of Prime Minister in 2004, naming Manmohan Singh instead. In the past, Indian prime ministers have disclosed at least some details of their illnesses to the public. When Singh, for example, had heart surgery in January 2009, that news was widely reported. Similarly, when Atal Behai Vajpayee of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party was prime minister, the public was informed of his knee-replacement surgery in 2000. Brajesh Mishra, who was then principal secretary to Vajpayee, told the Indo-Asian News Service, “If she were the prime minister, people would have the right to know about her health. She may be the most powerful person in the country, but she is not the prime minister and therefore can choose to be silent about her illness.”

The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, meanwhile, have used Gandhi’s illness to revive one of its oldest gripes against her—that she is a foreigner and therefore unfit to lead India. Gandhi was born in Italy but has lived in India since she was married to Rajiv Gandhi in 1968 and is an Indian citizen. During the 2004 elections, the BJP raised furious objections to her background, a strategy that ultimately backfired when she led her party to victory and then made the very Indian move of renouncing the seat of power and handing it to Singh, a widely respected economist and bureaucrat. Singh is now leading a coalition that is beset by allegations of corruption, and the BJP is using the opportunity to revive the criticism of Gandhi as a foreigner. At a rally in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, BJP chief Prabhat Jha raised questions over Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s surgery in a foreign hospital, saying “It can not be denied that the decision of the Gandhi family to get Sonia Gandhi operated abroad has hurt the medical fraternity of the India.” Both Singh and Vajpayee had their operations in India.

One thing that neither of them did was to put in place any kind of succession plan. Gandhi, however, turned over day-to-day control of the Congress Party to a four-member committee — three party stalwarts and her son, Rahul Gandhi, leaving little doubt about whom she expects to be the next Prime Minister. Rahul Gandhi returned from his mother’s sickbed over the weekend just in time for yesterday’s Independence Day celebrations. Instead of raising the Indian flag himself, he deferred to an older colleague —  forestalling criticism that he’s usurping power too quickly. Sonia Gandhi might have been absent, but her political skill was on full display.