The union home minister, Amit Shah, has been hospitalised thrice in the last six weeks. On 2 August, Shah, the most powerful political leader in the country after Prime Minister Narendra Modi, tweeted that he had contracted the novel coronavirus. He checked into a private hospital in the national capital region. There were no updates about his health till he was discharged on 14 August after reportedly testing negative for the disease. Three days later, at 2 am on the intervening night between 17 and 18 August, he was rushed to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences for “post-COVID care,” according to a press statement issued by the hospital. Shah was discharged on 30 August, and within two weeks, late night on 12 September, he was admitted to AIIMS once again.
With the hospitalisation through most of August, India was left without an active home minister for almost the entire month. The latest hospital admission came two days ahead of a two-week Parliament session, which will begin from Monday, 14 September. It is uncertain if the home minister will recover in time for the session, but according to an AIIMS press release issued on 13 September, Shah “has now been admitted for complete medical checkup before parliament session for 1-2 days.” Apart from these snippets of vague details released by AIIMS, the hospital and the home ministry have provided little information about the health of the minister and his ability to attend to matters of significant national importance.
Shah has a crucial session ahead, and hospitalisation would mean that the home minister would be unavailable to appraise Parliament about major policy matters. His portfolio covers a spectrum of critical internal-security issues, including those relating to the raging COVID-19 pandemic that has seen India cross Brazil to become the second-worst affected nation in the world, with the highest daily surges in infections seen so far globally. Shah oversees the two crucial union territories of Ladakh, where there is a Chinese incursion, and Jammu and Kashmir, with its unstable internal security. Immediate issues before the minister include the deployment of the Indio-Tibetan Border Police on the Ladakh border with China, signing off on all senior bureaucratic appointments before the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet and salvaging the Naga-peace process, which has hit a deadlock after 23 years of negotiations. Shah is also a member of the Cabinet Committee on Security, which decides on matters of military action.
It may not be possible to engage with these critical issues from a hospital bed or when one is fatigued due to an illness. The ability of an elected representative holding public office to function efficiently ought to be a matter of public concern. However, in India, the health of elected public officials is considered a “personal” issue—an aspect of individual privacy not to be discussed publicly.
This was witnessed in the cases of Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj, who continued to hold office despite acute illness and possible physical and mental vulnerabilities resulting from their ailments. The most striking case was that of Manohar Parrikar, who continued as the chief minister of Goa despite a pancreatic cancer diagnosis, and even appeared at public events with enhanced oxygenation tubes attached and intravenous fluid bottles in tow.