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O Panneerselvam: From Night Watchman to Captain

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O Panneerselvam, famous for being loyal, emerges as Tamil Nadu’s chief minister

The new chief minister of Tamil Nadu O Panneerselvam, or OPS, is known by many names. He has been called Man Friday for his servility towards Jayalalithaa. He has been compared to a night watchman in cricket and sometimes even as a television remote control for allowing his leader to rule the state through him. An article in the website Scroll referred to his nickname Kanneerselvam (an apparent play on the Tamil word ‘Kanneer’ which means tears) for his affinity to dissolve into a pool of trembling tears whenever anything befell Jayalalithaa.

In the years he has spent as her Finance and Public Works minister and, twice, as her chosen chief minister, he has used every public podium to demonstrate unflinching devotion towards Jayalalithaa. He has prostrated in front of her, clasped his hands in benediction before her chopper landed, sobbed his way through his own swearing-in ceremony, and even ruled as CM without actually sitting in the CM’s designated chair. He is said to carry a picture of Jayalalithaa on his car dashboard and another in his shirt pocket.

To the larger world outside, his is an image completely divested of personality and known only for loyalty. All of this of course makes sense. In a political party centred on the personality cult of Amma, power only flows through proximity to her.

The 65-year-old Panneerselvam is the son of a fairly successful farmer. He was born in the state’s Theni district and used to help manage a dairy farm and even ran a tea shop in the 1970s. Like many others at the time, he is believed to have been fascinated by the cine-star and politician MG Ramachandran, and joined AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) sometime in the 1980s. When MGR died and AIADMK split into two factions in 1987, he threw his lot with MGR’s wife Janaki Ramachandran. But he later made amends and was able to switch over to Jayalalithaa’s side. He was chairman of Periyakulam Municipality by 1996. Five years later, he was finance minister, and for a brief period, even CM. It is said many were surprised that Jayalalithaa picked him to fill in as CM back then because there were several more senior ministers around. About 12 years later, when another stop-gap CM was required, very few were surprised to see him chosen again.

Panneerselvam belongs to the Thevar caste and is believed to have consolidated his party’s position among the large and dominant Thevar community. In the 2014 general elections, for instance, as reported by several media outlets, the AIADMK won nine out of 10 seats in southern Tamil Nadu. The Thevars are the majority community in these parts.

After Jayalalithaa’s death was announced at midnight, Panneerselvam was hurriedly sworn to power by the Governor. The new CM is experienced in matters of administration and well-liked within the party. But it is unsure who will really come to hold the reins of the party. Will VN Sasikala, Jayalalitha’s close aide and confidante, who has over time come to be known as ‘chinnamma’ or younger mother, pull the strings from behind? Sasikala is also a Thevar and, for the moment, is backing OPS. Although she has never really held any administrative post, she wields considerable clout as Jayalalitha’s friend. In Jayalalithaa’s last journey through the city into her funeral at Marina Beach, Sasikala and her family stood steadfastly by the departed leader’s side. She conducted the final rites. When Rahul Gandhi appeared, he was introduced to both Sasikala and her husband Natarajan.

Panneerselvam spent most part of that journey in the background with other ministers and party members. When Narendra Modi appeared, Panneerselvam did what he has excelled at several times in the past. He broke down into a pool of tears, until Modi had to hug and console him.