The suspense surrounding Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa’s ongoing hospitalisation at the Apollo hospital in Chennai has been a cause for much tension in the state with instances of self-harm and wild rumours doing the rounds among the followers of the supremo of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. The fervent prayers, optimistic speculations and the government’s clampdown on naysayers only form the subtext to the larger battle between the Right to Privacy and the Right to Information. The National School of Journalism, Bengaluru hosted a panel discussion on this issue recently.
Three prominent personalities from the field of law and politics participated in the discussion. Among them was former Advocate General of Karnataka BV Acharya. Significantly, Mr. Acharya is the special public prosecutor in the disproportionate assets case against Jayalalitha. Except for an absence of three years, after he resigned in 2012, the senior counsel has been representing Karnataka in this high-profile case. Karan Joseph, a lawyer who formerly worked with Mr. Aditya Sondhi, the Additional Advocate General for the state of Karnataka, joined the panel as well. Given the deeply political nature of the issue, Mr. Dinesh Gundu Rao, the working president of the Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee, was invited to air his views.
The panel discussion was moderated by Roshini Jacob, a student journalist at NSoJ. During the span of over an hour, issues such as public interest, the indispensability of a chief minister to the Cabinet, the thin line between necessity and frivolity of information, and media’s treatment towards Tamil Nadu CM’s health status were covered.
Mr. Acharya said that although the right to privacy has been recognized as a corollary to the fundamentally guaranteed right to life, a public authority cannot seek immunity behind the same, much less if the authority in question is a chief minister who has certain special duties. “Whether the chief minister is physically and mentally capable of administering the state, to that extent, the people have the right to know,” he explained. He believes that even the reallocation of portfolios to O Panneerselvam, former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and Jayalalithaa’s trusted aide, must be questioned on the grounds of whether she was in a state to issue such an order or if it was done on somebody else’s behest.
Mr. Gundu Rao countered this point by terming the post of the Chief Minister as being “first among equals”. “If the council of ministers have come to a decision that Panneerselvam should be given the portfolios and there is no issue of conflict in the decision…the administration can run smoothly even with the chief minister being hospitalised,” he said. According to the Congress leader, the Chief Minister’s current spell of illness does not pose a crisis with regard to the question of governance.
Karan Joseph’s argument was quite in concurrence with this view. “From what I understand, she has, either by herself or on the aid of her Council of Ministers, delegated work to other people. So the government is still functioning and there is no breakdown in the constitutional machinery”. The right to information was framed with the idea of fighting oppression and corruption in public life and thus, a case in favour of freedom of information does not arise in the context of Jayalalithaa’s health, he added.
On being asked about the rising cases of self-harm and rumour-mongering due to the obscurity of information, the young lawyer dismissed such actions as an unreasonable ground for seeking refuge under RTI. “We need to balance what the public needs to know and her (Jayalalithaa’s) right not to have the public know certain things about her,” he responded.
Mr. Gundu Rao highlighted the sensitive nature of Tamil Nadu politics where the AIADMK revolves around Jayalalithaa. The vague nature of the health updates could be well-meant. “If they announce that she is incapacitated or no more able to function, there will be a political crisis and a huge outpouring,” he pointed out.
Mr. Joseph drew attention towards a legal provision of the RTI which allows the public to inquire about the Chief Minister’s health, the condition being that it should be a question which falls under the ambit of the legislature.
Though the panelists differed on the extent of public interest and the degree of crisis in this case, they all agreed that the public have no right to demand particulars about her treatment; details which could border on voyeurism. The personal life of an individual is relevant only to the extent that it concerns the day-to-day administration of the state which, according to the majority view within the panel, is running smoothly as of now.