It was almost midnight on Thursday when news broke of the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister’s illness. Within an hour, hundreds of party workers and supporters of the All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam had gathered outside the Apollo Hospital in Central Chennai, where J Jayalalitha had been admitted. Several reporters and cameramen also kept vigil all night with the party workers outside the hospital, waiting for updates on the Jayalalitha’s health.

Ten hours later, the crowd outside the hospital showed little signs of dispersing. The police had barricaded entrances of roads leading up to the hospital – barring the entry of vehicles of even patients and doctors who had to alight and walk to the hospital, reported The News Minute. The entire neighbourhood was filled with white-shirted party workers, some casually snacking on roadside samosas or fruits, others volubly professing their heartfelt loyalty towards their party leader in front of the cameras.

“We fully believe that she will recover and come out of the hospital soon,” cried M Yashoda, a party worker. “She has given cycles and laptops to the students, she has started Amma Unavagam (a subsidised food programme) for us, and so nothing will happen to her. No harm will come to her.”

Party workers and supporters sloganeering in front of cameras.

Rumours of Jayalalitha’s declining health have been doing rounds for over a year now, though not to the Chief Minister’s liking. In July, Jayalalitha slapped a criminal defamation complaint against for their article “Chennai media knew Jayalalithaa's health is not fine, but kept mum”, claiming it to be an attempt to tarnish her image. On Friday, at the gathering outside the hospital, party workers claimed that they had never seen their leader unwell before or ever having been admitted to the hospital.

Waiting for Amma

On Friday morning, the hospital authorities had released a medical bulletin:

“The Honourable Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu was admitted to Apollo Hospitals, Chennai, with fever and dehydration. The Honourable Madam is stable and under observation.” 

But no one was sure when she was to be discharged. Initially, word spread that she was to be released on Friday morning at 11 am, but by Friday evening the consensus seemed to be that she would not be leaving the hospital before Sunday.

Meanwhile, traffic piled up along Anna Salai, an arterial road to which traffic from Gream’s road was diverted. Several connecting roads were also highlighted in dark red on Google maps, indicating very heavy traffic. Any route involving the entire stretch of Anna Salai was estimated to take around 40 minutes over the usual time. Ambulances approaching the hospital had to honk their way to the hospital gates as party workers and cameramen thronged the streets.

Anxious party workers

While party workers were constantly reassuring each other that their leader was in good health, many declared that they would not leave until they had seen Amma’s face and assured themselves that she was fine. Nobody was allowed to visit her. Important and top party functionaries were only allowed as far as the hospital lobby, while the rest had to wait outside the gate. Other patients had to show identity proof to the police in order to enter the hospital.

Almost every 10 minutes, party workers would gather around a cameraman, fiercely yelling, “Puratchi Thalaivi Vaazhga” or “Long Live the Revolutionary leader” waving photographs of Jayalalitha and even breaking flaming coconuts at the entrance to the hospital.

The crowd outside the hospital gate.

“This morning I went to the temple to pray for the health of my goddess, the revolutionary leader, our organisation’s mother, who is inside the hospital,” yelled an AIADMK party worker. “She is the reason behind Tamil Nadu’s progress, making it one of the foremost states in India.”

Seated on the pavement right opposite the hospital gate was a group of women who worked under city ward councillors belonging to the AIADMK party. They had been waiting outside all night. “Amma is the only one for us, we don’t have anybody else,” said P Suguna, tearfully. “Not even our birth mother can be compared to her.”