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Indian leader’s illness prompts questions, but also restraint

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NEW DELHI » It has been 11 days since the announcement of the disappearance of Sonia Gandhi, the most powerful political figure in India. From all corners of the country, people have offered prayers and good wishes, even her political enemies. Yet what is most intriguing is that so few people are demanding she be found.

Gandhi’s disappearance is voluntary, if startling. For more than a decade, she has presided over the Indian National Congress Party, which made the Aug. 4 announcement such a surprise: She had left India for an undisclosed hospital in the United States to have surgery for an undisclosed condition.

Questions begged for answers: Was her life in danger? Where was she? Would this affect the Congress Party-led coalition government? Yet few answers were provided.

Even now, Congress officials have released only the basic facts that Gandhi, 64, has undergone "successful" surgery, has been released from intensive care and should return to India in a few weeks.

Rumors that she has cancer, or is being treated in New York, are unconfirmed. Some news outlets have published editorials calling for more disclosure. But in this raucously noisy political culture, Gandhi’s health has mostly elicited silence.

"The privacy of the family needs to be respected," said Sudheendra Kulkarni, an opposition commentator and a critic. "It is not something that people are demanding to know."

Symbolically, Gandhi’s health concerns mirror the weakened state of her party’s coalition government. The current session of Parliament has so far produced only rancor, as opposition parties have shut down proceedings with angry, theatrical protests against corruption. A new national poll found that the government’s credibility has been harmed by several major scandals, while critics and some allies complain of a leadership vacuum.

Even before Gandhi’s health problems, speculation had ebbed and flowed about whether Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would be moved aside before the next national elections in 2014. Singh and Gandhi, who both enjoy reputations for rectitude, have dominated Indian politics since the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government took power in 2004. Recently, though, the effectiveness of their arrangement has seemed to falter.

"It is perhaps the most directionless government the country has had in the last 20 years," said Yogendra Yadav, a social scientist. "This is their seventh year in power, and people are beginning to see all the instances where the government isn’t delivering where it said it would."

In the past decade, Gandhi has almost never granted media interviews. Friends and political allies are loath to talk about her, knowing the family’s intense obsession with privacy. This desire to avoid the spotlight is considered one reason that Gandhi, who has twice delivered the Congress Party to national power, did not appoint herself prime minister.

Yet she has been a potent force on policy issues: She regularly meets with visiting heads of state and makes official overseas visits. She is an elected member of the lower house of Parliament. She also heads the National Advisory Council, a quasi-governmental body that writes social policy, a job that gives her a cabinet-level rank. And her influence is such that opposition leaders often belittle Singh as a junior partner.

Her status is why a handful of media outlets have protested the secrecy about her health. "In a democracy, the people have a right to know detailed information about the health of their leaders," The Business Standard newspaper wrote in an editorial, asking whether public money was being used for her medical care and noting that the issue raised serious questions about the future of the Congress Party. "The entire nation would pray for her speedy recovery, but cannot be expected to shy away from raising these awkward questions."

Yet, for the most part, the questions have remained tamped down. Some Indian journalists say they consider the issue off limits. Kulkarni, the opposition commentator, said Indians, in general, did not believe it was appropriate to pry into private matters such as health or marital issues that are considered fair game in many Western nations.

"That just goes to show we are a different kind of society and we’re a different culture," he said. "In a time like this, it is not proper to demand information and transparency."

At the Congress Party headquarters in New Delhi, Gandhi’s office was chained and padlocked last week, a standard security procedure when she is away.

Tom Vadakkan, secretary of the party’s media department, said the public supported her desire for privacy. "Medical conditions are sacrosanct in India," he said. "Normally, we don’t discuss medical history." He added: "If Mrs. Gandhi feels this is a private matter, we respect her privacy. I’m told she’s doing well. Maybe in three weeks she will be back with us."

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