Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa is in hospital. For days, fans and party workers camped outside, and mass prayers were held for her. For eight days, there were no updates on her medical condition. Now, sources in the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam say she is well and will be home soon.

If the AIADMK has its way, we will not get to know much more. Earlier, when doctors were saying that the chief minister was on respiratory support and not allowed visitors, leaders from her party were claiming she had approved the transfer of her portfolios to O Panneerselvam. People speculating about her condition found themselves locked up and slapped with charges of rumour mongering.

The state of her health may be the subject of fervent prayer. But the figure on the hospital bed, the medical body with organs and fluids, we are not allowed to imagine. Amma can only loom in hoardings or beam out of packaged food, draped in a dark saree, bindi in place. The secrecy around her health stems from something more than privacy concerns. Political bodies, at least in some cultures, cannot admit to being made of flesh.

Divine bodies

The prayer and speculation seen in the last few weeks are not peculiar to the AIADMK and the cult of Amma. It has sustained the British monarchy for centuries. The body of the monarch, who is head of both church and state, and still bears the title “Defender of the Faith”, is touched with the divine. It can only be marvelled at from a distance; Michelle Obama made a famous faux pas when she put her arm round Elizabeth II, who looked slightly embarrassed but was willing to be a good sport.

But the divine mysteries of the royal body have also contributed to a prurient fascination with it. The history of the royal bloodline is also a history of disease. In 1795, when the state coach carrying George III was attacked by demotic mobs, it created ripples of shock. The gilded state coach, an emanation of royal power, was almost destroyed. It “amounted to a metonymic imagining of the king’s own destruction”, says the British scholar John Barrell. For years, shards of glass from the damaged coach were “sacrilegiously” sold on the streets of London for a shilling, like contraband reliquaries.

The imagining might have been more than metonymic, for it was rumoured that the king was shot at by revolutionaries in the crowd. Whatever the truth of that, the public imagination would eventually pierce through the coach to the body it was meant to carry.

A few years later, rumours spread that the king was turning mad. His mysterious aches and pains, his sudden loquacious fits, even the colour of his urine, became the subject of furious speculation. Physicians could not examine the royal body too closely, which did not help diagnosis. It is now believed that the king had porhpyria, a congenital blood disease which got worse until he had to abandon his royal duties.

With royal women, the public regard has been distinctly salacious. In contemporary paintings, the chalky face of Elizabeth I looms, moon-like, above a lace ruff that recalls a halo. The chalkiness, it is said, came from powder meant to hide small pox scars. And the suggestion of divinity was probably meant to repress gossip about her sex life and anatomy.

Royal women were also royal vessels, meant to carry babies that would ensure the continuity of the bloodline. So Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s wife, who would apparently go to the gallows telling her executioner she had only “a little neck”, became a gynaecological curiosity. And her husband, the first monarch to be called “Defender of the Faith”, did not escape certain ripe discussions either.

The fascination with royal bodies continues, strangely unexamined by large sections of the public. Author Hilary Mantel got into trouble for calling the Duchess of Cambridge “a jointed doll”, perfectly bred to carry on the royal line. Then British Prime Minister David Cameron called Mantel’s comments “completely misguided and wrong”, taking her essay to be an attack on the princess rather than a critique of monarchy and the way the British public fetishised royal women.

Political illnesses

More often, political illnesses are state secrets because of strategic reasons - the survival of the government may hang in the balance and any admission of weakness could be fatal. Two kinds of stories seem to flow from the illness of a powerful leader. There is the whodunit, laced with plots and stratagems, political associates trying to preserve the appearance of normalcy. And there is the medical history, which tells the story of a failing, fallible body.

The health of Russian dictator Joseph Stalin took a turn for the worse in 1952 but you could tell him so at your own peril. When his personal physician, Vladimir Vinogradov, suggested he step down for health reasons, Stalin had him arrested and seemed disposed to have him shot as well.

In the decades after his death, Stalin’s last days would be scrutinised and reenacted over and over again. Popular imagination has entered the sick chamber where he lay dying, surrounded by a group of nervous associates. They had cause to be nervous, since political rivals were already waiting in the wings. Doctors initially diagnosed “hypertension”, disruption of circulation in the brain” and a “stomach haemorrhage”. In the final report, however, there was no mention of the stomach haemorrhage. So the medical history would feed into theories that Stalin had been murdered.

Earlier this year, the public were kept guessing about the health of Islam Karimov, who ruled Uzbekistan for 27 years and was admitted to the hospital after a “suspected brain haemorrhage”. Long after he had fallen into a coma, the authoritarian leader was kept clinically alive as the apparatchiks of the regime decided what to do and who would succeed him. They were only following in the footsteps of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco and Ariel Sharon of Israel, kept in a coma for long, the latter for as long as eight years.

An ailing system

Is it a coincidence that these countries are not exactly known for their robust democratic record? And Britain uses myths of monarchy to distract itself from an increasingly bleak political landscape. In some cases, the secrecy around a leader’s health may point to the deeper pathologies of a political system.

In Tamil Nadu, the two major parties, the AIADMK and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, are arranged around powerful figureheads. M Karunanidhi is the ruling patriarch of the DMK, an aged veteran who holds the reins of the party while his sons squabble over the succession.

In the AIADMK, Jayalalithaa demands unquestioned fealty and is circled by acolytes who have never been allowed to become leaders. The chief minister is also in the habit of slapping defamation cases against her detractors and the Supreme Court recently observed that it was “not the sign of a healthy democracy”.

Elections in the state boil down to a choice between two competing feudalisms.