Jayalalithaa, India’s Colorful, Controversial State Leader, Dies

  • She died close to midnight after a prolonged hospital stay
  • Made a determined journey from a starlet to chief minister

India's Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa Dies

Jayaram Jayalalithaa, a popular movie star who rose to become one of India’s most powerful regional leaders, has died. She was 68.

She died at 11:30 p.m. local time on Monday at Apollo Hospital in Chennai, the capital of the southern state of Tamil Nadu where she was chief minister, the hospital said in a statement. She was hospitalized on Sept. 22 to treat fever and dehydration, and died following a cardiac arrest on Dec. 4.

Jayaram Jayalalithaa

Photographer: M. Lakshman/AP Photo

The colorful and controversial politician had faced a series of high and lows. Her supporters said she steered Tamil Nadu to development and economic growth, making the state a base for companies including Dell Inc. and Hyundai Motor Co. Her critics said she established a personality cult, involved in corruption and indulged in extravagant expenditure.

"Our beloved leader, The Iron Lady of India, Puratchi Thalaivi Amma, is no more," her party said on its official Twitter account.

Jayalalithaa’s death could trigger public expressions of grief among her supporters, who in the past had shown devotion to their ‘Amma’ -- ‘mother’ or ‘goddess’ in the local language -- by painting her portrait in blood and walking on hot coals. Police blocked traffic on some roads in Chennai leading to the hospital where Jayalalithaa was hospitalized.

Starlet to CM

Like many politicians in southern India, Jayalalithaa used a past in the popular Tamil-language cinema and in particular her closeness to M.G. Ramachandran, a movie hero who founded the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party, to build a political base.

Under her leadership, the AIADMK started several welfare programs to supply cheap food and medicines to the poor, all named after Jayalalithaa. She also led the party to greater influence, allying with the Bharatiya Janata Party in 1998 to form a national government that collapsed after 13 months when she withdrew support.

"Her demise has left a huge void in Indian politics," Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted. Her "connect with citizens, concern for welfare of the poor, the women and marginalized will always be a source of inspiration."

The troughs and peaks continued. Jayalalithaa spent three weeks in prison on corruption charges in 2014 before a high court cleared her. After being physically attacked amid the state assembly in 1989, the Rock Hudson fan who considered green her lucky color became the first in decades to win consecutive terms in Tamil Nadu.

Her national ambitions, however, remained unfulfilled.

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