Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa, one of India's flamboyant politicians, was battling for her life yesterday after suffering a heart attack, as security was tightened across the state amid fears of an outbreak of unrest among her supporters.
Hundreds of emotional supporters yesterday held up her photographs and women wept openly outside Chennai's Apollo Hospital, where the 68-year-old politician was admitted since Sept 22, after complaining of fever, dehydration and lung infection.
"We want Amma. Take my life, spare hers," a crying woman told an Indian television channel outside the hospital, where hundreds had gathered for news of Amma, or mother, as she is popularly known.
Doctors yesterday fought to save Jayalalithaa's life but the prognosis remained grim.
Prof Richard Beale, a British consultant in intensive care medicine who had been called in for consultations, said in a letter released by Apollo Hospital: "The situation is grave, but I can confirm that everything possible is being done to give her the best chance of surviving this shocking event."
The hospital said that the chief minister was on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation - a condition typically used in acute respiratory failure cases - and other life support systems.
Ms Jayalalithaa, an actress- turned-politician, enjoys cult-like status among her supporters and is one of India's most popular regional leaders. Known for her successful populist schemes, including the Amma canteen, which provides affordable and wholesome food, she is extremely popular among women voters who are seen to have contributed massively to her return to power.
She was sworn in for the sixth time as chief minister in May, after beating her rival, Mr M. Karunanidhi of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), in assembly elections. But she was hospitalised within four months after that.
Her worsening condition has triggered concerns about security in the state, where supporters have been known to immolate themselves for political leaders. So far, things have remained largely normal, with schools and offices remaining open yesterday in Tamil Nadu's capital Chennai and other parts of the state.
Ms Jayalalithaa took over leadership of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in the 1980s after the death of its founder M.G. Ramachandran, an icon of Tamil politics.
Over the last three decades, she, along with DMK's Mr Karunanidhi, have dominated Tamil politics with national parties like the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party having little presence in the southern state.
Yesterday, there were signs that a succession plan was being put in place with all members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) from her AIADMK party called for a meeting. Ms Sasikala Natarajan, her close confidante of many years, was said to be playing a key role with Mr O. Pannerselvam, who had taken over the chief minister's portfolios, possibly taking over.
"It doesn't matter now that they don't have a second or third level of leadership. They have to choose an MLA or even someone who is not an MLA to take over. Sasikala seems to be holding all the cards right now," said Chennai-based political commentator Badri Shesadri.