A woman walks past a portrait of Jayalalithaa Jayaraman in Chennai. Photo: Reuters/Babu
A woman walks past a portrait of Jayalalithaa Jayaraman in Chennai. Photo: Reuters/Babu

One of India’s most popular politicians, Jayalalithaa Jayaraman, the chief minister of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, died in hospital in Chennai late on Monday night following a heart attack.

The 68-year-old former movie star had been admitted to the hospital on September 22 suffering from dehydration and fever.

News of her death set off an outpouring of grief among thousands of supporters gathered outside as the government announced a seven-day state mourning period and three days’ holiday for schools and colleges.

Hundreds of police were deployed around the hospital in case crowds of devoted supporters reacted strongly to Jayalalithaa’s death. In the past, followers have been known to commit suicide in reaction to bad news, while the death of Jayalalithaa’s mentor Ramachandran, or MGR as he was known, sparked looting and rioting across Tamil Nadu by his grief-stricken supporters in 1987.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was among the first to pay tribute to the woman who was widely known as “Amma” (mother). “Deeply saddened at the passing away of Selvi Jayalalithaa. Her demise has left a huge void in Indian politics. My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Tamil Nadu in this hour of grief,” Modi tweeded.

“Our beloved leader, The Iron Lady of India … is no more,” tweeted her All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) political party, the third-largest in India’s lower house of parliament in New Delhi.

Hours later, state finance minister O Panneerselvam was sworn in to take over as Tamil Nadu chief minister by Governor Vidyasagar Rao.

A controversial political figure, Jayalalithaa was state chief minister four times since entering politics in 1982 after a movie career that spanned 140 films.

Her followers remained devoted throughout, thanks to a series of free and subsidized schemes for the poor, such as the “Amma canteens” where people are offered meal for just three rupees (US$0.044).

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