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The death of Mr Reddy

Soutik Biswas | 16:41 UK time, Friday, 4 September 2009

A woman grieving in front of a poster of YSR Reddy YS Rajasekhara Reddy was a powerful and popular Indian politician. The fact that he grew to become an indispensable regional satrap in a dynastic party like Congress made his achievement more creditable. So when he died tragically in a helicopter crash in southern Andhra Pradesh state on Wednesday, an outpouring of grief was not unexpected. Party supporters wept profusely when his death was announced.

But soon the grief turned to mass hysteria - grown up men and women were crying a day after the death, there was a minor stampede at the funeral and the media published scanty, unconfirmed reports about people committing suicide or dying of shock on hearing the sad news. Mr Reddy's son and potential political heir even appeared on his own TV channel with an unusual appeal: ""Due to such acts [suicides] my father's soul will not rest in peace .. They [people] should not resort to such acts." In other words, the leader's son was begging his people to live.

Unquestionably, such mass hysteria is stoked by news television to a large extent. Why such frenzied public behaviour follows the death of some people is not difficult to ascertain. Supporters and fans regard these people as personal gods. When leaders and celebrities become larger than life, they evoke abject devotion in life and hysterical grief in death. Many of these leaders and celebrities even fashion themselves as modern gods - the late film star and Andhra Pradesh chief minister NT Rama Rao used to put on his godly regalia from his films and wave to his fans from his balcony when he was alive.

It is not the first time that such hysteria has been seen in India. When former filmstar MG Ramachandran died, at least two people immolated themselves and mass hysteria swept Tamil Nadu state. Such hysteria is not even a regional phenomenon as history shows. New York was choked by 100,000 mourners when Italian actor Rudolph Valentino died in 1926 and riot police had to be deployed to keep the crowd at bay. Dozens of women apparently committed suicide. When John F Kennedy was assassinated, some grief stricken Americans tried to take their lives and still others went into depression, a syndrome which even got a moniker.

Mass hysteria also has nothing to do with India's southern politics and politicians, as many in the country believe. A lot of southern politicians like the late MG Ramachandran and NT Rama Rao, among the dead, and Jayalalitha among the living, are larger than life having been film stars in their early lives. I believe very few northern politicians have matched the charisma of their southern counterparts - and none have been heroes or heroines to the masses.

Mr Reddy was certainly not in the same league. I sense a concerted effort at myth making here - there is still not a shred of evidence that any of the reported deaths of people in the state were caused by Mr Reddy's death and then there is the son's curious appeal. In these days of easy fame, Mr Reddy, in death, has become larger than life thanks to 'breaking news television'. "As each new medium of fame appears," wrote Leo Braudy in his treatise on fame, "the human image it conveys is intensified and the number of individuals celebrated expands". We see evidence of this every day.

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