DURING A MEMORIAL service held on 9 September for victims of the 9/11 terror attacks in New York, US presidential contestant Hillary Clinton left the venue early after feeling ‘overheated’. No reporter was allowed to follow her, giving rise to speculation that she was hiding some medical condition.
More than any Western democracy, the possibility of a president, or a would-be president, concealing some health issue quickly snowballs into a political controversy in the US. Clinton is not the first US politician to be dogged by it. In the early 60s, John F Kennedy was suspected to be suffering from Addison’s disease during America’s nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union, a situation that could have spun out of control in case the president had a bout of debility rendering him unable to handle the stress involved. That experience has not been forgotten in the US.
At a broader level, this is a phenomenon that marks all democracies. While transparency in public life is hailed and at times even achieved to a degree, the medical life of leaders is always shrouded in secrecy. It is a subject that is seldom allowed the kind of inquiry it merits. In India, former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was known to be suffering from ailments when he held office. When a foreign magazine published an article on his health, the Government reacted with a furious denial. More recently, Sonia Gandhi took ill on a campaign trail. She is said to have a medical condition that’s a mystery to Indians at large.
These are tricky issues to unpack anywhere. Democracy is supposed to have a ‘flattening’ effect on everyone. All citizens are supposed to be equal. From this follows the proposition that the personal details of any individual— which includes health troubles—ought to remain secret as long as the person concerned wants them kept confidential. It’s the right to privacy.
It is also a myth. In any political system, there are leaders and those who are led. In a democracy, the question is whether the ailments of leaders—ones that could potentially affect millions because he or she may not be able to perform his or her duties—should be kept secret to the extent they individually want? The answer is not clear-cut, but veers around to ‘no’. Democracy has a price, and politicians’ giving up secrets is one to be paid.