The political dilemma when ministers are sick in bed

The political dilemma when ministers are sick in bed
Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar. File Photo: IANS
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It took a new entrant to the BJP in Goa to confirm that Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar's serious ailment is pancreatic cancer. The chief minister has not been able to attend office or assembly since march this year, when he was taken ill and rushed to a Mumbai hospital. Since then he has been in the United States twice, and has spent time in hospitals in Delhi, Mumbai and Goa, apart from home rest. Vishwajit Rane, a recent defector to the BJP from Congress and a minister in the shaky coalition government headed by Parrikar, has said the ailing chief minister is finding solace among family members, thus ruling out immediate return to active politics.

Yet the Bharatiya Janata Party leadership headed by Narendra Modi and Amit Shah has not been able to find a successor who can govern Goa effectively, and give Parrikar time to undergo the treatment needed to cure his serious ailment. The peculiar nature of the Goa's coalition, where BJP outwitted Congress in a hung assembly, makes Parrikar as the only glue who can hold the coalition together. The supporting parties and independents do not trust any other BJP leader including former chief minister Laxmikant Parsekar and Union minister Shripad Naik. The opposition Congress has alleged that a coterie around the chief minister is running the show. Goa Governor Mridula Sinha has been suggesting to the centre that a permanent solution should be found, but Modi and Shah are unwilling even eight months after Parrikar fell ill.

The political dilemma when ministers are sick in bed
Jayalalithaa was hospitalised with serious ailments. File

On the other hand, the centre was partly decisive when Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa was hospitalised with serious ailments a couple of years ago. After there were complaints that an extra-constitutional cartel headed by her aide V K Sasikala was directing the chief secretary and director general of police in Jayalalithaa's name, the then governor Vidyasagar Rao decided that the Cabinet should take control, and that the senior-most minister O Panneerselvam should preside over the meetings. Paneerselvam placed a photograph of Jayalalithaa on the chief minister's chair and started taking decisions. No such arrangement has been made in Goa, because the BJP says Parrikar is active and conscious, though he is under medical isolation due to the treatment.

Tamil Nadu had seen similar scenes when the first AIADMK chief minister M G Ramachandran fell seriously ill due to kidney failure and had to be rushed to the US for treatment. Even though he was not able to communicate due to paralysis, the administration was run in his name, and the party won the 1984 assembly elections in his name. The swearing-in ceremony was held in the chamber of then governor S L Khurana, who confirmed that the matinee idol-turned chief minister had read the oath of office, even though MGR was incapable of speech. The government was run by his close associates in the Cabinet and bureaucracy, till MGR's death.

This is a dilemma in Indian politics when leaders fall. When the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had to undergo a heart surgery which meant he would be in anaesthesia and then in intensive cardiac care unit, he arranged that the senior-most minister Pranab Mukherjee would take decisions in consultations with the Cabinet Committee of Political Affairs. Singh's role at the Republic Day parade was performed by his Defence Minister A K Antony. President Pratibha Patil was fully briefed of the situation, as under the Constitution, the posts of president, prime minister and governor of a state cannot be vacant at all. However, there is no such rule for chief ministers, since there is the alternative of the governor appointing a new chief minister or placing the state under president's rule for a short period till the crisis is over. But chief ministers hardly take a leave of absence, even when they are seriously ill.

The political dilemma when ministers are sick in bed
M G Ramachandran fell seriously ill due to kidney failure.

In the Modi government three ministers have had major ailments. Sushma Swaraj underwent kidney transplant but she continued to handle external affairs portfolio on the record from hospital, with Prime minister Narendra Modi intervening for major decisions. However, when Finance Minister Arun Jaitley underwent a kidney transplant, the finance and corporate affairs portfolios were given temporarily to Power Minister Piyush Goyal. However, Goyal refused to sit on the finance minister's chair, and preferred to use the sofa set in Jaitley's North Block office. Now Ananth Kumar, the minister for fertilisers, chemicals and parliamentary affairs, has been seriously ill since August, and had been to the US for treatment of a lung ailment. On his return he has been admitted to a hospital, and will not see visitors at least till mid-November. However, his portfolios are not assigned to any other colleague.

Meanwhile, Parrikar case has come to the top of the agenda for BJP.

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