J Jayalalitha: Why ailing leader has Indian state on edge

Jayalalitha Image copyright AFP
Image caption Jayaram Jayalalitha is one of India's most powerful and controversial politicians

India's Tamil Nadu state is awash with rumours about Chief Minister Jayaram Jayalalitha, about whose health little has been heard since she was taken to hospital two weeks ago, reports TS Sudhir.

An elderly man is hanging from a crane, hooks pierced through the skin on his back. In his hand, he is holding a picture of his beloved leader, who is sick and in hospital.

In "sharing" his leader's pain, the man says, he is praying for her speedy recovery.

Elsewhere, in the southern Indian city of Chennai (Madras), men and women huddle in groups and pray outside the Apollo Hospital, where Chief Minister Jayaram Jayalalitha is being treated. Across the city, workers belonging to her AIADMK party eat food off a temple floor and offer prayers for their leader's health.

And in what many say is a shocking display of worship and obeisance, children with their cheeks pierced with metal arrows and foreheads smeared with holy ash pray for Amma (mother), as she is popularly known.

'Outlet for emotions'

"People feel a lot for Amma. All this is an outlet for all those emotions,'' says Vetrivel, an AIADMK lawmaker.

Jayaram Jayalalitha, one of India's most powerful and controversial politicians, was admitted to hospital on 22 September.

Initially, the doctors said the 68-year-old was receiving treatment for "fever and dehydration". She was placed under observation and her diet was monitored.

After three anodyne bulletins, the doctors said in a release on 3 October that she was on "respiratory support" and was being administered antibiotics. A British doctor specialising in critical care treatment was flown in to examine her.

The lack of what many say is adequate and credible information on the leader's health is triggering a tsunami of rumour-mongering, mostly over social media.

Image caption Prayers are being held outside the hospital in Chennai where Jayalalitha has been admitted
Image copyright AFP
Image caption A group of Indian Muslims pray for Jayalalitha's recovery outside the hospital

A photograph of a woman in an intensive care unit in a Peru hospital was circulated, claiming it was the picture of Ms Jayalalitha. Now police have warned people against spreading rumours about her health.

Social activist Chandra Mohan says it is "unacceptable" that people do not have access to information about their leader's health.

"It is one thing to have right to privacy for a patient but not really if you are in charge of the state. If the chief minister is not fit, a replacement needs to be made. But the problem is that Jayalalitha has projected herself as the undisputed leader of the party so even to suggest this is considered blasphemy," he says.


Mr Mohan is not off-the-mark: the AIADMK is practically what many say is a "one-woman party", and Ms Jayalalitha's two-week-long absence and her deteriorating health have rattled the party rank and file. Since there is no second line of political command, Tamil Nadu is being run by bureaucrats in her absence.

Authorities are also reluctant to make public any detailed information about their leader's health, fearing reckless acts of self-harm by her supporters.

Image caption Party supporters are holding prayers in temples

Self-immolation is one of them: on Wednesday, an AIADMK supporter set himself on fire and was admitted to hospital with 30% burns.

Such displays are not just limited to politics in Tamil Nadu. Several fans of the Tamil film star Rajinikanth undertook various acts of self-harm during temple rituals hoping to help him recover when he was ill several years ago.

Opposition politicians have been seeking more clarity on Ms Jayalalitha's health. But on Thursday, the high court in Chennai dismissed a petition seeking more details.

Now the people of Tamil Nadu are waiting to see whether the charismatic leader can script her most dramatic comeback.

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