Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Dr Jayaram Jayalalithaa (born 24 February 1948) breathed her last at Apollo Hospital, Chennai on December 5, 2016 at 11:30 pm, after suffering a sudden cardiac arrest on the evening of December 4, 2016, the climax of a prolonged illness. She leaves behind a difficult-to-fill vacuum in the State as well as the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) of which she was general secretary and unquestioned leader.
Known as Amma (mother) and Puratchi Thalaivar (revolutionary leader) to millions of fans, Jayalalithaa enjoyed popularity unknown to any leader in modern India, with thousands of followers keeping vigil outside her hospital and others organising round-the-clock prayers for her recovery. Her devotees ensured strict police crackdown on persons allegedly spreading rumours about the state of her health.
So steadfast have they been in their loyalty to Amma, that barely had news flashed that she had suffered a heart attack – just one day after Apollo’s Dr Prathap Reddy had pronounced her almost fit to be discharged – that the streets outside the hospital quickly filled up with devotees, making it difficult for Governor, C. Vidyasagar Rao, to reach the venue. The State administration quickly deployed all its police and available para-military forces all over Chennai and other districts to maintain law and order and restrain emotional admirers from harming themselves, or others, or damaging public property. These have been augmented by forces from other States as well.
Jayalalithaa, in her fifth term as Chief Minister, towered so much above the rank and file of the party that she inherited from her mentor, MG Ramachandran, that there was no one of near-equal status to whom she could entrust the Government and party when the inevitable happened. While MGR ensured a fairly smooth political succession – barring the brief glitch with his wife, Janaki amma – Jayalalithaa did not groom a second line of leadership in the AIADMK.
However, her loyalist and three-time proxy Chief Minister, the Finance Minister O Panneerselvam, has taken lead of the Government and is keeping the party united by avoiding a succession dispute. Officially, all party MPs and MLAs have been asked to sign a declaration stating that they will abide by the decision of the high command.
Jayalalithaa’s hospitalization plunged the Government and the party into deep internal turmoil, despite the outward calm; the Centre has been keeping a close watch on events since September 22, 2016. After the DMK patriarch and leader of opposition, M Karunanidhi, publicly asked questions about her health and the governance of the State, Governor C. Vidyasagar Rao visited the hospital and later handed charge of her portfolios to Finance Minister Panneerselvam, though he was not sworn-in as Acting Chief Minister. Rao said the decision was taken in consultation with the ailing Chief Minister, though few believed it.
The stability of the Government in which the AIADMK has a majority of 133 out of 234 seats, and the fate of the now-orphaned party, is a matter of anxiety to the people of the State. The term of the current Assembly, elected in May 2015, is up to May 2021, and it is doubtful if any successor could hold party and government together till then. The Narendra Modi-led NDA would be sharing this concern because the party’s 37 Lok Sabha and 11 Rajya Sabha MPs are crucial for the passage of many important legislations.
Jayalalithaa was committed to the development of Tamil Nadu, and had prepared a vision document 2023. In five stints as Chief Minister, she was always adamant that the State receive its fair share of Cauvery waters from the upper riparian State of Karnataka, and addressed her last letter to Prime Minister Modi on this subject. She stood her ground on issues she believed in, and opposed the Goods and Services Tax (GST) on grounds that it would affect Tamil Nadu adversely. However, she helped the NDA government by staging a walkout rather than voting against the GST Bill; its fate, however, still hangs in the balance.
Her departure may affect efforts to deal with the spreading Islamic terrorist network in the State, as well as economic and infrastructure development projects. Jayalalithaa dealt with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) with a firm hand and ensured that its cadres left the State. But many felt that there was police laxity in dealing with Islamic fundamentalists as also the conversion industry. There are growing concerns over the rise and spread of the extremely rabid Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the districts of Tamil Nadu.
Overall, however, Jayalalithaa’s advantage was her combined charisma as the chosen heir of MGR, her attractive personality as a popular actress, her powerful oratory in Tamil, her cogent articulation of issues when she spoke in English or Hindi to non-Tamil audiences, and an unblemished pro-poor image. As Chief Minister, she launched several effective social schemes, most notably the Amma canteen, where tasty and nutritious food is sold at highly subsidised rates. Besides being a boon to the poor, the canteens have been availed of by the middle class working population and found to maintain standards. No Tamil leader has been able to match her programmes to provide succour to the poor.
In 2004, she was invited by the House of Lords, London, to receive the “Woman Politician of the Decade” Award from the Asian Guild Awards. The Golden Star of Honour and Dignity Award was conferred upon her in 2004 by the International Human Rights Defence Committee in recognition of her services in protecting the weaker sections of society and in the field of gender equality in Tamil Nadu and India. In 2011, the New Jersey General Assembly passed a resolution appreciating her exemplary excellence and dedication as a leader and in service to the people of Tamil Nadu.
Given the intense secrecy and near hysteria accompanying the Chief Minister’s health, a brief history may be in order. Jayalalithaa was admitted to Apollo Hospital on September 22, 2016, for fever and dehydration, and declared stable and under observation. The next day, the hospital said her fever had gone and she was taking a normal diet. Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent her flowers and wished her a speedy recovery.
But on September 25, the hospital was forced to deny rumours on social media that she was being taken abroad for treatment. On September 27, the AIADMK tweeted that the Chief Minister had convened a meeting in the hospital to discuss the Supreme Court’s interim orders on the Cauvery river dispute with Karnataka. On September 29, the party tweeted an image of the hospital’s statement asserting that Amma was recovering well but would be kept under observation for a few more days.
In the absence of any photographic evidence of Jayalalithaa being on the way to recovery, and the strict ban on visitors, these statements were taken with a pinch of salt. On September 30, DMK president Karunanidhi demanded the state government issue an official statement on her health, with attached photographs; he pointed out that no minister had been allowed to meet the Chief Minister.
Thereafter, at a nod from the Centre, Governor Rao visited Jayalalithaa on October 1, and on October 2, the hospital issued another statement saying that an expert group of doctors treating her had opined that she was responding well to the treatment, but would have to stay under observation for a few more days. It was only on October 6 that Apollo Hospital issued an elaborate health bulletin, stating that her treatment regimen included continued respiratory support, nebulisation, drugs to decongest the lungs, antibiotics, nutrition, general nursing care and supportive therapy. On October 8, the hospital announced that she was undergoing lung decongestion and other ‘comprehensive measures’ and was under constant monitoring.
MK Stalin, Leader of Opposition in the Assembly, visited Jayalalithaa on October 9, spoke to the doctors, and suggested that an interim CM be appointed. With doctors signaling that the Chief Minister was far from recovery, Panneerselvam was assigned additional charge of eight departments on October 12.
From October 13, the AIADMK launched an online campaign to end false rumours about Amma’s health, and from time to time, statements were issued by the party and the hospital, stating that Jayalalithaa was on the road to recovery and would soon be discharged. But since there were no photographs or reports of visitors actually seeing her, these were received with scepticism.
On November 16, a statement, ostensibly by Jayalalithaa, was released, saying “I have taken rebirth because of people’s prayers”. The by-elections took place on November 19 and the party romped home in all three seats, as expected. On November 18, the Chairman of Apollo hospitals, Dr Prathap C Reddy, said she was breathing normally and would be discharged at her own wishes. But all doctors from abroad and the capital’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences continued to visit Chennai to monitor her progress, it was very clear that all was not well, despite the hospital moving her from the ICU to a private room with all facilities of an intensive care unit.
On December 4 evening, it was suddenly announced that she had suffered a cardiac arrest and put on a heart-lung machine. The long lines that had left the hospital to queue up at banks and ATMs following demonetisation on November 8, swiftly returned to keep vigil. And at …. p.m. on December …., it was all over.