Jay­alalithaa dies af­ter long ill­ness

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Jay­alalithaa Ja­yaram, the chief min­is­ter of south In­dia’s Tamil Nadu state and one of the coun­try’s most pop­u­lar po­lit­i­cal lead­ers, died af­ter a pro­longed ill­ness, hospi­tal au­thor­i­ties an­nounced late yes­ter­day night. “It is with in­de­scrib­able grief, we an­nounce the sad demise of our es­teemed hon­or­able chief min­is­ter of Tamil Nadu ... at 11:30pm (lo­cal time) to­day (De­cem­ber 5),” Chennai’s Apollo Hospi­tal said in a state­ment re­leased to the me­dia.

Doc­tors had been treat­ing the 68-year-old for­mer film star, who en­joys an al­most god­like sta­tus in Tamil Nadu. Hun­dreds of devo­tees have kept a round-the-clock vigil out­side the pri­vate hospi­tal in the state cap­i­tal Chennai since she was first ad­mit­ted in Septem­ber suf­fer­ing from a fever. Their numbers swelled since her con­di­tion wors­ened on Sun­day. “Noth­ing can kill Amma,” said one man hold­ing a pic­ture of the leader out­side the hospi­tal. To mil­lions of her fol­low­ers, the chief min­is­ter was known sim­ply as “Amma” (mother).

Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi of­fered his con­do­lences over her demise. “I will al­ways cher­ish the in­nu­mer­able oc­ca­sions when I had the op­por­tu­nity to in­ter­act with Jay­alalithaa ji (hon­orific). May her soul rest in peace,” Modi said on Twit­ter. Her po­lit­i­cal party, AIADMK, on Twit­ter said: “our beloved leader, the Iron lady of In­dia...Amma, is no more.”

Jay­alalithaa was in­tro­duced to pol­i­tics by her cin­ema screen part­ner, M G Ra­machan­dran, an­other actor-turned politi­cian, and went on to serve as chief min­is­ter of Tamil Nadu five times. Jay­alalithaa re­mained hugely pop­u­lar de­spite be­ing jailed more than once for cor­rup­tion. The reclu­sive leader ran her party with an iron hand with no clear line of suc­ces­sion to gov­ern a state that is home to ma­jor auto and IT out­sourc­ing firms.

Dur­ing her lat­est ill­ness, her pic­ture was put in a chair at the head of the ta­ble at state cabi­net meet­ings. Her min­is­ters have on oc­ca­sions been seen to pros­trate them­selves at her feet. O P Pan­neer­sel­vam, a cabi­net col­league, has stood in for Jay­alalithaa in the past, but he has re­peat­edly made it clear he is not re­plac­ing her and point­edly re­fused to sit in her chair at cabi­net meet­ings. “There is no sec­ond line of de­fense here, and these are emo­tive times. There is a chance of vi­o­lence,” said T R Ra­machan­dran, an in­de­pen­dent expert on Tamil Nadu pol­i­tics.

The Press Trust of In­dia said po­lice across the state had been put on high alert to main­tain law and or­der, with 2,000 of­fi­cers sta­tioned at the hospi­tal alone in case emo­tional crowds of de­voted sup­port­ers re­acted strongly to fur­ther de­vel­op­ments. Sup­port­ers have been known to com­mit sui­cide in re­ac­tion to bad news. Me­dia re­ports said some Chennai schools would re­main closed, while the US con­sulate in the city said it had sus­pended ser­vices and warned Amer­i­cans to ex­er­cise cau­tion.

Sev­eral of her sup­port­ers re­sorted to self-harm when she was briefly jailed in 2014 on charges of cor­rup­tion.

Jay­alalithaa earned the loy­alty of many vot­ers in Tamil Nadu with a se­ries of highly pop­ulist schemes, in­clud­ing an “Amma can­teen” that pro­vides lunch for just three ru­pees (five cents). In 2014 she was briefly forced to step down as chief min­is­ter af­ter she was jailed on cor­rup­tion charges. Her con­vic­tion, later over­turned on ap­peal, sparked mass protests and even some re­ported sui­cides. Thou­sands of di­rec­tors, ac­tors and pro­duc­ers in the suc­cess­ful Tamil lan­guage film in­dus­try went on hunger strike to de­mand her re­lease.

The AIADMK and its bit­ter ri­val, the DMK, are the main par­ties in Tamil Nadu, and both are built around a per­son­al­ity cult of their lead­ers who are drawn from the Tamil film in­dus­try. In­dia’s two na­tional par­ties, the rul­ing Bharatiya Janata Party and the op­po­si­tion Con­gress have lit­tle po­lit­i­cal pres­ence in the state, de­spite decades of ef­forts. The death of Ra­machan­dran, or MGR as Jay­alalithaa’s men­tor was known, sparked loot­ing and ri­ot­ing across Tamil Nadu by his grief-stricken sup­port­ers in 1987. — Agen­cies

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