When Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan left for the US on September 2, for medical treatment of an undisclosed ailment, one question steered many media reports around the visit – who is standing in for the CM, when the state is grappling with aftermath of the floods and landslides?
Vijayan had already postponed his visit, originally scheduled for August 19, to stay back and coordinate the massive rescue and relief operations. His handling of the crisis – in the familiar, no-frills style – had also come in for praise.
But a week after his departure for treatment, against the backdrop of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, another question emerges – should the public not have the right to know details of the Chief Minister’s ailment and treatment?
The chief minister’s office has not made public details of his ailment. Nothing much has been disclosed apart from that Vijayan, 74, is admitted in Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, as mentioned in a General Administration (Political) Department order that sanctioned the originally scheduled visit. The order states that all expenses in connection with the visit would be borne by the state government. Senior journalist and political analyst N P Chekkutty feels that the public has a right to know how the chief minister would run the administration from the US when the state is preparing for a crucial rebuilding phase.
“This is not a normal situation; the state is recovering from one of its worst disasters. It’s an issue concerning someone who holds a public office and there’s public interest in it,” says Chekkutty. Minister for Industries E P Jayarajan has maintained that the ongoing rehabilitation and rebuilding efforts will not be affected by the chief minister’s absence. The Congress-led opposition has been quick to raise concern over the chief minister not handing over charge to any minister in his absence.
RTI activist and lawyer D B Binu counters the argument that information is being “denied” but backs people’s right to know if the chief minister’s health permits him to run the administration remotely, as being reported. “The question of withholding information doesn’t arise unless someone seeks the details under RTI and is denied that information. But there’s a larger public interest here, especially because the chief minister has left without formally handing over charge to anyone,” he said. Binu said a more transparent approach could have also avoided speculation on the ailment.
A senior member of the chief minister’s staff, when contacted by DH, refused to comment on the matter. Regarding the chief minister’s date of return, he said the schedule was based on the progress of his treatment. Chekkutty feels the chief minister’s office could have sent out a signal of reassurance to the public by making a statement regarding his visit.
The leader of the Opposition Ramesh Chennithala says governance has come to a standstill in a critical stage of the state’s recovery. “It’s a repeat of the administrative crisis that Tamil Nadu faced when (late chief minister) Jayalalitha was hospitalised. This happened because no minister was handed over the chief minister’s charge,” Chennithala told reporters here.
Beyond the staple political context of the debate, the public has a larger stake in administrative transparency, feels Chekkutty. “When someone who heads the state is away for three weeks and is not handing over charge to anyone, it also shows a deficit of trust; and that is an issue that concerns the public,” he said.