Jayalalithaa Jayaram, India’s popular and powerful leader of Tamil Nadu, dies aged 68

Tensions grip Indian state of Tamil Nadu after passing of Jayalalithaa Jayaram, one of the country’s most powerful politicians.

Jayalalithaa Jayaram, leader of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), taking part in the swearing-in ceremony as chief minister of Tamil Nadu state in Chennai. Jayalalithaa died after a prolonged illness, hospital authorities announced late on December 5, 2016. / AFP / ARUN SANKAR
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Chennai, India // One of India’s most powerful and popular political leaders Jayalalithaa Jayaram died on Monday aged 68.

The chief minister of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, who was revered by her followers, had been in critical condition and on life support after suffering a cardiac arrest on Sunday evening.

“It is with indescribable grief, we announce the sad demise of our esteemed honourable chief minister of Tamil Nadu at 11.30pm,” Chennai’s Apollo Hospital said.

Prime minister Narendra Modi tweeted: “My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Tamil Nadu in this hour of grief.”

The death of Jayalalithaa, a former film star, raised fears of violence and an extreme response from her devoted followers.

Hundreds of people had kept a round-the-clock vigil outside the private Apollo hospital in the state capital Chennai since she was first admitted in September suffering from a fever. Their numbers had swollen since her condition worsened on Sunday.

Police across the state had been put on high alert to maintain law and order, with 1,000 officers stationed at the hospital.

Earlier on Monday, scuffles broke out outside the hospital and hundreds of police had to hold back supporters when they tried to break through the barricades.

The hospital had said that doctors were “continuing all life saving measures. #Godbless-Amma.”

Crowds outside the hospital were seen praying for the chief minister, who is known simply as “Amma”, or 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 said.

Jayalalithaa has not been seen in public since September. But the hospital had said her health was improving until she suffered the cardiac arrest on Sunday evening.

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 (16 fils).

In 2014 she was briefly forced to step down as chief minister after she was jailed on corruption charges.

Her conviction, later overturned on appeal, sparked protests and even some reported suicides.

Thousands of directors, ­actors and producers in the Tamil ­language film industry went on hunger strike to demand her release.

Jayalalithaa was introduced to politics by her cinema screen partner, M G Ramachandran, another actor-turned politician, and went on to serve as chief minister of Tamil Nadu five times.

The reclusive leader ran her party with an iron hand with no clear line of succession to govern the state.

O P Panneerselvam, a cabinet colleague, has stood in for Jayalalithaa in the past, but he has repeatedly made it clear he would not replace her and pointedly refused to sit in her chair at cabinet meetings.

During her latest illness, Jayalalithaa’s picture was placed on an empty chair at state cabinet meetings.

“There is no second line of defence here, and these are emotive times. There is a chance of violence,” said T R Ramachandran, an expert on Tamil Nadu politics.

* Agence France-Presse and Reuters