Calcutta: An extremely sensitive issue few want to discuss on record but laden with public interest has reared its head following the death of Subhas Chakraborty: the state of the Bengal cabinet’s health.
Chakraborty had to steer the transport ministry through one of its most tumultuous phases, though he was suffering from cancer — an unsettling but not uncommon ailment the government shied off from referring to in public.
At least three ministers in the current cabinet have health problems that can be aggravated by the strain of ministerial responsibilities. But the government yesterday passed up an opportunity to allow them to call it a day and find fresh hands.
Some of these ministers have been relieved of additional berths but they still hold charge of some crucial portfolios with a direct link to everyday life of citizens — an area where public interest comes into play.
An obsession with status quo — the hallmark of governance in Bengal since Nandigram — is a key factor behind the reluctance to rock the boat. But equally responsible is a high degree of discomfiture — not just in Bengal but in many parts of the country where political leaders continue to defy the tribulations of age and rule — in discussing matters of health even when they have a direct impact on governance.
This is a furtive trait many political establishments of the country share with some communist regimes. During the Soviet era, rare television appearances by communist leaders were closely watched by the West for clues to their health. The iron curtain was so firmly in place on matters medical that the rest of the world had to wait for days before deaths were made public.
The US has a tradition of making public details of the President’s medical tests. Politicians’ health attracts so much dissection there — fuelled also by the fear of destructive powers, symbolised by the nuclear button, being wielded by those not in the pink of their health — that it also becomes a potent campaign weapon sometimes.
In 2008, Barack Obama’s campaign released his medical records (“lean and muscular with no excess body fat”), apparently to contrast the exhaustive details (cholesterol 173 — normal under 200) with the long medical history of opponent John McCain who eventually lost the election.
But in Bengal and most parts of the country, keeping people informed of the health status of the leaders is more an exception than the norm, unless when Prime Ministers or leaders such as Jyoti Basu are hospitalised.
The people should be kept informed of the state of health of ministers who handle important portfolios, according to retired IAS officer Dipak Ghosh.
“Probably with the exception of North Korea, the health condition of political persons occupying high public office in every country is made known to the people if they are unwell. CPM ministers who are suffering from ill health are being made to carry on. This should not have happened,’’ Ghosh said.
Not that the subject is not being discussed in the corridors of power, though under the breath. An IAS officer, who declined to be named, said: “We were discussing among ourselves…. It was not correct on the part of Alimuddin Street to keep Subhasbabu as transport minister after knowing about his deteriorating health.
“He had to handle the transport department during this turmoil (phase-out of polluting vehicles). The party hasn’t been kind to these ailing ministers as well as to the government by keeping them.”
But a member of the CPM state committee, which finalised the token shuffle yesterday, said: “The departments (retained by the unwell ministers) are important and cannot be handed over to inexperienced people when our party has lost ground and only 20 months are left for the Assembly polls. Our party is aware that Mrinalda, Nirupamda, Sailenda and Gautam are not keeping well. But we can’t afford to be over-adventurous.”
Nirupam Sen, one of the ministers referred to by the CPM leader, has had some health complaints but they have so far not become big hurdles to his duties.
The CPM leadership has not tinkered with Deb’s portfolios, though he was forced to be on bed rest. “His condition has improved, but the problem might relapse in the event of which he may need surgery,” a doctor said.
But a CPM leader said: “Gautam is not being considered seriously ill by the party and hence need not demit office now.”