People

Doubts over real extent of Indian leader's illness

Doctors caring for Ms Jayalalithaa, who is on respiratory support, say she has a lung infection. Meanwhile, her supporters believe that she will pull through.
Doctors caring for Ms Jayalalithaa, who is on respiratory support, say she has a lung infection. Meanwhile, her supporters believe that she will pull through.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Questions raised about succession as medical team caring for Tamil Nadu chief is beefed up

The Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Ms J. Jayalalithaa, seeking re-election earlier this year, quelled speculation about her health by hitting the campaign trial and urging voters to bring her back to power.

Now, six months after crushing her opponents in the state election, the politician - revered as Amma, or mother, by supporters - is on respiratory support in Chennai's Apollo Hospital where she is being tended to by an ever-expanding medical team, from critical-care specialists to diabetologists.

In the past 10 days, visiting politicians did not get to see or speak to her, intensifying rumours about the real extent of her condition. Her doctors have said she has a lung infection, even as party members maintain that she is improving.

Still, her supporters believe that she will pull through.

"She has strong willpower. She has always been a fighter," said Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Venkaiah Naidu, one of a string of politicians across party lines who have visited her in hospital.

Ms Jayalalithaa, 68, who has been chief minister six times, starting in 1991, is known for her eloquence, charisma and even her quirks.

Federal government officials say when Ms Jayalalithaa, who is as comfortable speaking in English as in Tamil, comes to Delhi for meetings, she stands out from other chief ministers.

The former actress, who successfully cashed in on MGR's popularity, built a personality cult around herself that grew as she introduced many welfare schemes and freebies during her years in power, amid an early recognition of women voters as an important voting bloc.

One of her quirks involves her bringing her own chair to federal government meetings.

She was born in 1948 in Melukote, in Karnataka state. Her father, a lawyer, died when she was two. Her actress mother got her daughter started in acting when she was only 16.

Ms Jayalalithaa rose to become a popular movie star, starring in dozens of films in different southern Indian languages.

The Tamil movies in which she co-starred with Marudhur Gopalan Ramachandran, popularly known as MGR, a cultural and political icon in Tamil Nadu, were among her most popular ones.

MGR, who formed the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party, helped her transition from acting to politics when she was in her 30s. Following his death in 1987, she wrested control of the party from his widow.

The former actress, who successfully cashed in on MGR's popularity, built a personality cult around herself that grew as she introduced many welfare schemes and freebies during her years in power, amid an early recognition of women voters as an important voting bloc.

To curb female infanticide, she introduced a scheme in which unwanted baby girls can be left in cradles outside welfare centres.

She set up all-women police stations and gave 8g of gold to new brides. More recently, she promised to close 500 of the 6,823 state-run liquor shops as part of a phased ban on alcohol.

Yet the populist politician has long been accused of corruption and excesses. In 2014, she was jailed briefly after she was convicted of graft in an 18-year-old disproportionate assets case. She was acquitted by a high court but the case is pending in the Supreme Court.

Her ill health has raised questions about party succession amid rumours that key aide Sasikala Natarajan could make a play for dominance. For now, state finance minister O. Panneerselvam is taking care of her portfolios such as revenue.

"She has methodically destroyed the governance structure of her party (over the years). Most ministers don't have anything on their desks when you go visit them," said Chennai-based political analyst Badri Seshadri.

"They can't take decisions on their own. They always say they have to ask Amma. If she is not well, that means many issues are not being attended to. That is not good."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2016, with the headline 'Doubts over real extent of Indian leader's illness'. Print Edition | Subscribe