The first the public learned of it was in a brief report on television and in the newspapers on September 23, saying Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa had been admitted to Apollo Hospital with fever and dehydration. The impression given was that she would need just a couple of days of treatment. Those who know something about the subject would have suspected there was more to it than the bland press release said. Rumours about her health have swirled for years, after all, and the government’s silence has merely strengthened them.
The first substantiation of her state of health came when she was jailed at Bengaluru’s Parappana Agrahara in September 2014 following a guilty verdict in the disproportionate assets case against her. That was when we officially learned that she had advanced diabetes, hypertension and related ailments. Public unease has been further stoked by Jayalalithaa’s apparent reluctance to make public appearances except during the campaign for state assembly elections earlier this year. Almost all important inaugurations have been by video conferencing, even successive stages of the Chennai metro system. This is unusual behaviour for a politician; they generally revel in the limelight. That is another reason people don’t believe the bulletins on her health.
On October 23, just over a month after she was admitted Jayalalithaa was still in Apollo’s critical care unit. A press report occasioned by the Tamil Nadu governor’s visit said he “was happy to note that the CM is progressing well”. That, apparently, was all the news that was fit to print. Not another word on what the team of cardiologists, respiratory physicians, infectious disease specialists, endocrinologists and diabetologists is doing to restore her to normal, nor what ails the chief minister that requires so many super-specialists to attend on her.
A chief minister is the head of government and as such her health is a matter of interest to everyone. She is of course entitled to privacy but people are bound to speculate in the absence of reliable information. Given her peculiar situation—she is not only CM but also in effect the entire ruling party—public concern is all the greater. The constant procession of national political leaders trooping in to visit her compounds the uncertainty. In these circumstances the administration has a duty to provide credible and timely information.
When VCK leader Thol Thirumavalavan is denied access to the chief minister, MDMK leader Vaiko can’t meet her and even DMK heir apparent Stalin is refused entry, what would ordinary people think? The administration can’t seriously believe the non-news it passes off as medical bulletins will be accepted without question. People are neither stupid nor of a malignant disposition. What is more natural than a discussion among friends on Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp or even text messaging? There is nothing criminal or spiteful about an airing of private worries on a matter of surpassing public interest.
If anything, it is the state’s response that is not only mala fide but positively malignant. On October 14, two bank workers in Chennai were arrested for spreading rumours on a police complaint by an AIADMK worker who said they asked her about the CM’s health and when she did not reply passed some comments on the subject. For this mere verbal inquiry the two were arrested and charged under various sections of IPC, including 505 (1)B (intent to cause fear or alarm to the public) and 506(1) (threat and intimidation). This staggering perversion of the law is not the only case, as more than 40 people have been arrested for similar reasons. Even to weary Indians used to governmental excess it is incomprehensible that the executive and lower judiciary would collude in the arbitrary arrest of innocents in an unseemly display of panic over a political leader’s illness.
What should be of greater concern to everyone is the paralysis of governance since the chief minister was admitted to hospital. Even senior ministers had nothing better to do than hang around Apollo, organise prayers and penances in a revolting display of collective sycophancy. It was only at the Centre’s prodding, through the medium of the governor, that finance minister O. Panneerselvam finally plucked up the courage to hold a cabinet meeting. But he didn’t preside; that was left to a portrait of the chief minister. Perhaps it is par for the course in AIADMK but to the outsider it is a grotesquery completely at odds with anything that passes even remotely for democracy.
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