NEW DELHI—Jayaram Jayalalithaa, the powerful chief minister of the state of Tamil Nadu whose fervent following was matched by few other Indian politicians, died late Monday after she failed to recover from cardiac arrest.
The daughter of an actress in Tamil-language films, Ms. Jayalalithaa’s first career was in show business. She was featured in more than 100 movies, which catapulted her to fame before she turned to the political arena in the 1980s, serving as chief minister of her state four times.
A minister in her cabinet and close aide, O. Panneerselvam, was sworn in after midnight Tuesday to take her place as the head of Tamil Nadu, a state where major auto companies, including Ford Motor Co. and Hyundai Motor Co., have offices. He carried a photograph of Ms. Jayalalithaa at the oath-taking ceremony.
Ms. Jayalalithaa, known fondly as Amma or mother in her southern state of more than 70 million, had been recovering from a monthslong illness in the hospital. Details on her condition had been largely shrouded in secrecy.
She suffered a massive cardiac arrest Sunday afternoon and died close to midnight the following day, authorities at the hospital where she was being treated said. She was 68 years old.
Ms. Jayalalithaa’s political party, which she governed with absolute authority–inspiring both fear and reverence from its faithful followers–said in a late-night tweet that the “Iron Lady of India” had died. Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted: “Her demise has left a huge void in Indian politics.”
Her death will likely reshape the Tamil Nadu political landscape, which is built around personality cults. It could usher in a period of political instability, worrying the foreign investors that Ms. Jayalalithaa attracted by showcasing her long-term economic agenda in high-profile events. Her party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, lacks a clear charismatic successor to assume her throne.
Ms. Jayalalithaa’s party became a major force in India’s Parliament during her tenure. In 2014 countrywide elections, it emerged as the second-largest national opposition party, narrowly trailing the Congress party.
Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party–which hasn’t had electoral success in Tamil Nadu, though it is pushing to spread its influence there as it emerges as India’s dominant political force–might sense a political opportunity in the vacuum left behind by Ms. Jayalalithaa.
Elections in the state have long been a two-horse race between Ms. Jayalalithaa and her bitter rivals in the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party, which is led by a 92-year-old former screenwriter.
When Ms. Jayalalithaa’s body arrived at her home in the state capital of Chennai overnight, hundreds of wailing and grieving supporters jostled and clashed with police, knocking down barricades as they tried to push closer.
Police were deployed across the state in case her death triggered the kind of widespread violence and suicides that followed the passing of Ms. Jayalalithaa’s mentor and a former chief minister–Maruthur Gopala Ramachandran, himself an actor-turned-politician–in 1987.
In 2014, after she was convicted on charges that she had amassed wealth well beyond her known sources of income, local newspapers and her party reported suicides and self-immolations by devastated followers.
The verdict was later reversed by an appeals court and she returned as chief minister, leading frenzied supporters to celebrate by pouring milk on giant posters of her image–a Hindu ritual usually reserved for deities.
During Ms. Jayalalithaa’s tumultuous 35-year political career, her popularity wasn’t diminished by corruption investigations and a short imprisonment in 2014.
Her slightly-smiling portrait is inescapable in Tamil Nadu, where her posters are plastered across cities and in the countryside. Multistory images of the saree-clad leader have been a regular feature at political rallies.
Her government serves hundreds of thousands of subsidized meals each day at “Amma canteens” and offers discounts on medicine at “Amma pharmacies.” She built a reputation as a benefactor, distributing free laptops, blenders and even goats to the poor.
After her death, the government announced a seven-day period of mourning beginning Tuesday, during which security will be high. The U.S. consulate in Chennai warned Americans that “even gatherings intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and escalate into violence.”
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