After she had been missing from Parliamentary proceedings three days in a row, the Congress condescended to let India know that the party President was abroad for a surgery. She was to be operated upon. What for, we do not know. There has been much speculation, but no information.
Sonia Gandhi’s absence first struck the country as odd on 1 August, when the all-important Monsoon session of Parliament began without the chairperson of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA). On the second day of proceedings, a media report said she was down with viral fever, something the Congress did not bother to deny. As it later turned out, the report was incorrect, she was actually in the US with something decidedly more serious than a viral attack.
Finally, on day four of her absence from Parliament, Janardan Dwivedi, chairman of the All India Congress Committee’s media cell, broke the party’s silence, but with no more than a squeak. For those gathered, Dwivedi read out a brief statement saying that Sonia Gandhi was “recently diagnosed with a medical condition that requires a surgery”. He deflected all questions related to her ailment.
Of course, he did say that in the absence of the Congress President, a four-member committee would look after the party’s day-to-day affairs. As named, the four were Defence Minister AK Antony, the party president’s political secretary Ahmed Patel, Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi, and Dwivedi himself. Noteworthy, here, was Rahul’s inclusion.
So far, Rahul’s role in the party—on paper—has been limited to steering the Indian Youth Congress and National Students’ Union of India. And given how active these wings have become since he took charge, it is clearly a full-time job. Also, Rahul himself has insisted that he wants to focus on this, and seeks neither a bigger role in the party nor a ministerial berth. Neither Sonia nor Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, by their own admission, have been able to convince him to join the Cabinet or take up a greater role in the party. Yet, Dwivedi’s announcement only seemed to confirm what everyone has long expected: that Rahul will be the party’s next president. Ever since he declared he was entering politics in 2004, party leaders have been crying themselves hoarse that he lead the Congress. Could this, finally, be a sign that he is ready? Does he have a choice?
Is this the beginning of a long-awaited transition? Just how serious is Sonia’s condition if the surgery could not wait for the Monsoon session, in which the important Lokpal and Land Acquisition bills—and perhaps other legislation on food security and so on—were to come up? These were some of the obvious questions that journalists asked of Dwivedi, but he did not part with any further information.
Later in the day, his subordinate in the media cell, party spokesperson Manish Tewari did the same. Only, he found a dozen different ways to say that he had nothing more to add to what Dwivedi had said. The committee formed to look after party affairs in Sonia’s absence, Tewari said, had its seniormost leaders—with “several years” of experience in the party. Apparently, he forgot that Rahul has formally spent less than a decade in the Congress, and has thus far been the party’s ‘face of the youth’. Thankfully, Tewari did acknowledge that the media’s curiosity about the UPA chairperson’s health was understandable “since she is a public figure”. However, he was categorical, her privacy needed to be respected. What he doesn’t understand is that Sonia Gandhi is not a ‘celebrity’ like Rajinikanth or Amitabh Bachchan, whose health would worry only her fans. She leads the country’s ruling party and heads the coalition that runs the Government. In 2004, when she chose not to assume prime ministership, she also chose who would be the PM instead. Seven years later, Manmohan Singh is still the PM because he has her confidence. The media and electorate are quite clear about Sonia’s role in leading the country. For this reason, it is important for them to know the status of her health. It has a bearing on the leadership of the ruling party and the way this country is governed, which in turn affects every citizen of India. Even the non-Congress voter. This is a democracy, and a top leader’s health cannot be a state secret.