Like her mentor MGR, Jayalalithaa, too has ensured that her medical history is kept under wraps.

Two leaders one hospital zero info The Apollo stints of Jayalalithaa and MGR
news Politics Tuesday, October 11, 2016 - 17:55

For nearly twenty days, Greames Road in Chennai has become the fulcrum of political activity in the state. Apollo Hospital, where Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has been admitted since September 22, has become a fortress. There is a sense of déjà vu for many old-timers in Chennai. The scenes unfolding in Tamil Nadu today following Jayalalithaa’s hospitalisation bear an eerie similarity to what happened 32 years ago in the city that was still known then as Madras.

Shrouded in secrecy

Matinee-idol turned Chief Minister MG Ramachandran was admitted to Apollo Hospital on Greames Road just past midnight on October 5, 1984 with breathlessness.  Even as the Chief Minister gasped for breath, his instructions were clear. "Don't tell anyone I am here, don't let anyone know that I have been brought to hospital," MGR repeated.

His convoy of vehicles was sent away before word spread that the CM had taken ill, reported TN Ninan and SH Venkatramani in India Today in November that year. That Friday night in October 1984 ushered in an era of secrecy, where information surrounding the AIADMK leader’s health was kept tightly guarded.

The medical bulletin released by Apollo Hospital revealed little about the health status of the Chief Minister. The hospital had been given strict instructions to tone down the medical bulletins. Even as MGR was undergoing dialysis at the private hospital on Greames Road, a bulletin released three days into his hospitalisation suggested that the CM had “slight asthmatic trouble” leading to "mild renal impairment". 

A small committee was also set up with then Health Minister Dr HV Hande who was nominated to brief the press on MGR’s health. But even when MGR suffered a paralytic stroke on October 16, the official information released by the hospital and the government remained limited.

Read: MGR's health was worse, don't compare with Jaya's: Ex health minister hits back at Karunanidhi

Like her mentor MGR, Jayalalithaa, too has ensured that her medical history is kept under wraps. The health bulletins from Apollo Hospital today, are no different from 1984, carefully worded with minimal information on the exact cause of her ailment provided to the general public.

MGR’s sudden illness took most of his cabinet ministers by surprise. His kidney ailments that had been diagnosed just months prior to his hospitalisation had been a secret, with only his wife Janaki and his doctors in the know. Much like today, MGR’s cabinet ministers functioned out of Apollo Hospital.  With the Chief Minister bedridden, the wheels of administration slowed.

MGR at a Brooklyn hospital in 1984 (Image courtesy: YouTube screenshot)


Prayers and rumours

While doctors from the United States and Japan were called in to treated the CM, outside the hospital, anxiety prevailed as rumours surrounding MGR’s health circulated amongst an agitated public. Describing  the weeks following MGR’s hospitalisation, India Today reports:

“Women, in sarees adorned in red, white and black, the colours of MGR's political party, the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), brought prasad from temples across the state. And in virtually every place of worship, the devout offered prayers and supplications for the VIP patient's speedy recovery. It was a scale of mass idolatry never before witnessed in the country. On the roads of Madras and other towns in the districts, small processions of men, women and children trekked for up to 30 km to a favoured temple or church. Posters went up on walls and in buses, praying for MGR's recovery.” 

Visitors flocked to the hospital to wish the AIADMK supremo a speedy recovery. Among the high profile visitors was Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who flew into Madras just weeks before her assassination. She called in on the ailing CM and promised to keep a special plane on standby in case MGR had to be flown abroad for treatment.

Jayalalithaa, however, who had been MGR’s leading lady in nearly 30 films and had been groomed by the AIADMK leader himself, found herself shut out following his hospitalisation. Vaasanthi in her book “Amma: Jayalalithaa’s journey from movie star to political queen” writes,

“…the top brass of the AIADMK decided that no visitors must be allowed, especially not Jayalalithaa. Hearing that they were even planning to beat her up if she came to the hospital, Dr Pratap Reddy, the chief of Apollo, advised her to stay away.”’ 

Constitutional crisis

Factionalism in the AIADMK surfaced in the immediate aftermath of MGR’s hospitalisation. As governance remained in limbo, then Governor SL Khurana found himself in a constitutional crisis on the question of appointing an acting Chief Minister. After seeking legal advice, India Today reports, that the governor accepted Finance Minister VR Nedunchezhiyan as the de-facto CM in MGR’s absence.

The scenario in 1984 is no different from today as Governor Vidyasagar Rao finds himself in the same position as then Governor Khurana. Rao’s meeting last week with Chief Secretary P Rama Mohana Rao and senior cabinet minister O Panneerselvam and Edappadi Palanisamy gave rise to speculation on whether an acting CM would be appointed in the wake of Jayalalithaa’s illness. On Tuesday, however, a press release was issued by Raj Bhavan allocating all of Jayalalithaa's portfolios to Finance Minister O Panneerselvam. Although Jayalaltihaa continues to remain the Chief Minister, OPS will preside over the Cabinet meetings in her absence. 

Read: Governor allocates all of Jaya's portfolios to OPS, but she remains CM

From the opposition’s side, the politics, then and now, has largely remained unchanged with DMK President M Karunanidhi watching on from the side lines.  In 1984, however, with state and parliamentary elections approaching, Karunanidhi was quick to sense the mood amongst the public. The scriptwriter penned a moving letter to MGR in the party mouthpiece “Murasoli”, detailing the many years the two had spent together. The beautifully scripted letter, ended with Karunanidhi writing that though they had taken different paths, their earlier association could never be wiped away and he hoped that MGR would return with a smile and give him the joy of political debate once again.

Read: Despite ideological differences, hope Jayalalithaa recovers soon, says Karunanidhi

 At Apollo Hospital today, history appears to be repeating. Police personnel stand on guard inside and outside the premises, watching on as Amma’s faithful supporters perform rituals for the shutterbugs.  A makeshift press “enclosure” has been created for the many journalists, who camp out in shifts for any news that may trickle down from the hospital.  Cars with red beacons drive in and out the hospital gates, with a sense of purpose. The mood of heightened tension has given way to the business of routine. It, however, remains to be seen how this story will play out.

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