Amit Shah is arguably the second-most powerful man in India today. Not only is he the number two in Modi’s cabinet, Shah is the most powerful second-in-command in the history of the Union government. In addition to being home minister, Shah is a member of all eight cabinet committees. Shah has even chaired inter-ministerial meetings, unprecedented for a person who is not prime minister.
So powerful is Shah that it was he who piloted the Modi government’s most controversial move in its six years of office: revoking the special status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019.
However, the past few months have seen Shah take an uncharacteristic backseat. In May, Shah released a public statement about his health in response to what he called “rumours” as well as “lakhs of party workers and well wishers expressing their concern”. “I want to make it clear that I am absolutely well and am not suffering from any disease,” Shah said in a tweet.
On August 2, Shah put out a statement that he had tested positive for Covid-19 and said he was being admitted to hospital. By August 14, Shah announced that he been got cured and tested negative. Within days, however, Shah was back in hospital for “post Covid care”. He stayed there for 12 days, being discharged on August 30.
However, Shah was readmitted to hospital on Saturday for a “complete medical checkup”. News agency IANS reported that Shah had breathing problems. Like earlier, there are no public details available on the progress of Shah’s treatment.
For ordinary citizens, privacy in matters of health is sacrosanct. However, the situation is reversed when it comes to people holding important positions in the government. Given the critical nature of their jobs, it is vital for politicians holding office to be in good health. Shah’s spell of ill-health for much of August, for example, comes even as the Chinese army is occupying parts of the Union territory of Ladakh and Covid-19 cases are shooting up across the country. Shah’s home ministry is responsible for both administering Ladakh as well as acting as the point of coordination for states in managing the pandemic.
Until now, India has not had a public culture of asking politicians in power to disclose their health status. But other democracies have different standards on this point. In the United States, for example, the physical and mental fitness of contenders to powerful positions like the presidency is closely scrutinised, with politicians often going so far as to release their medical records.
Indian law requires politicians to declare their assets and liabilities before standing for an election. A similar standard of transparency should also apply to the health records of any politicians taking up vital executive duties at either the federal or state level.