For some months now, supporters of Tamil Nadu’s chief minister, J Jayalalithaa, had been trying to conceal their anxiety. Something was going unimaginably wrong. Through the duration of Jayalalithaa’s long-running trial on charges of holding disproportionate assets, they had enthusiastically protested her innocence, going on fasts and circumambulating the sanctums of every Hindu god they could think of. This May, it seemed their faith had been rewarded. Jayalalithaa—Amma, to them—was absolved, and returned to head the state government. But a suspicion started growing among them. Is it true, her supporters asked each other, that Amma is ill?
Jayalalithaa, the supremo of the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, spent 21 days in a Bengaluru jail last September and October after a special court found her guilty of corruption, before being released on bail. She came straight back to Chennai, and cloistered herself in her Poes Garden residence. She did not emerge for 217 days. When the Karnataka High Court acquitted her on 11 May, her supporters rushed to her gates. But Amma did not come to her balcony to wave and flash the victory symbol, as was her habit. In hushed whispers, AIADMK leaders told each other she refused to meet even the party’s top brass. Not even O Panneerselvam, her stand-in chief minister, was granted an audience.
On 23 May, Jayalalithaa finally stepped out to attend her swearing-in ceremony, but that appearance only added to the gossip. The event was just 25 minutes long, and featured what was probably the first mass swearing-in of ministers in any government in this country. The national anthem, whose full 52 seconds are mandated at such ceremonies, was truncated to under 20. One explanation doing the rounds was that the Tamil Nadu governor, K Rosaiah, was unwell. But Jayalalithaa herself looked pale and tired, and seemed to walk with difficulty.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Chennai in early August, Amma’s supporters must have smiled with relief to see the chief minister, resplendent in a green sari, receive him at the airport and host a lunch in his honour. These images, they would have thought, would shame those—her detractors and rivals—who had been spreading awful rumours.
Vaasanthi is a bilingual author and freelance journalist who writes in Tamil and English. She was the editor of the Tamil edition of India Today for nine years, and is the author of Cut-outs, Caste and Cine Stars: The World of Tamil Politics, published by Penguin. She lives and works in Bangalore.