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A woman walks past a portrait of Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa in Chennai. (Reuters)

Tamil Nadu on the edge after rumours over Jayalalithaa’s health

WT24 Desk

Six-time Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa’s life hung in the balance on Monday, with doctors putting her on life support after a near-fatal cardiac arrest that briefly triggered rumours of her death, according to reports.

Hundreds of police held back emotional supporters of the 68-year-old former film star when they tried to break through the barricades outside the hospital after media reports — later denied — that she had died. Many were seen scuffling with police while others beat their hearts and wailed over the rumours.

Doctors treating Jaya, who enjoys an almost god-like status in Tamil Nadu, clarified she was on assisted breathing and that her condition was very critical. She was admitted to hospital on September 22 for fever and later developed complications.

Jaya’s party, the ruling AIADMK, briefly lowered its flag to half-mast at its headquarters in Chennai within minutes of at least three local TV stations, including Jaya TV, reporting that the 68-year-old leader had died. But the flag went back up soon after the Apollo hospital denied the reports.

“The Apollo specialists and specialists from the AIIMS are continuously monitoring the honorable chief minister very closely,” S Viswanathan, chief operating officer, Apollo Hospitals, said in a statement.

Jaya has no clear successor – during her latest illness her picture was put in the chair at the head of the table at state cabinet meetings. AIADMK sources said the party was trying to agree on a future chief should something happen to Jaya, and that Jaya confidant and former chief minister, O. Panneerselvam, could take over.

In Chennai, TV images showed crowds praying for the chief minister, who is known simply as “Amma” (mother), many of them in tears. “Amma should survive. I won’t mind if my life is taken away, but Amma should live,” one supporter cried.

Police across the state had been put on high alert to maintain law and order, with 1,000 officers stationed at the hospital in Chennai alone. Some city schools have been ordered closed, while the US consulate in the city said it had suspended services and warned Americans to exercise caution.

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. Her highly emotional supporters have in the past resorted to self-harm, and even committed suicide, on bad news, including when she was briefly jailed in 2014 on charges of corruption.

On Sunday, the AIADMK announced that she was given a clean bill of health by a team of medical specialists. However, shortly after she was moved to the critical care unit (CCU) of Apollo hospital following the cardiac arrest.

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