Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Can Paneerselvam shift from lieutenant to leader without Jayalalithaa?

In the wee hours of Tuesday, hours after the demise of J. Jayalalithaa, O. Panneerselvam took oath as the chief minster of Tamil Nadu for the third time.
But this is the first time that he will not merely stand in temporarily for Jayalalithaa.

The man who once cried inconsolably while taking oath as temporary CM did a better job of keeping himself together this time around. But he carried along a photo of his beloved leader, popularly called “Amma” by the masses.

All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) leader Jayalalithaa, one of the world’s longest serving women leaders, passed away at Apollo Hospital late on Monday.

Without a doubt, Panneerselvam has big shoes to fill. But the trusted lieutenant’s humble beginnings, akin to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, could work in his favour as he tries to keep the AIADMK together and unite the masses.

Panneerselvam, 65, is a former tea shop owner and agriculturist from Theni district in southern Tamil Nadu. He began his political career in 1996 when he became the chairman of Periyakulam municipality, a post he held until 2001, when he was elevated as a cabinet minister.

Panneerselvam’s campaigning in Periyakulam earned Jayalalithaa’s associate Sasikala Natarajan’s nephew T.T.V. Dhinakaran a Lok Sabha seat in 1999.

“That was the time he (OPS) was trying to take bigger steps outside Theni,” said a former AIADMK party member from Periyakulam, on the condition of anonymity. The eldest of eight children, Panneerselvam’s family belongs to the Maravar sub-caste of the Thevar community, dominant in the southern districts of the state. Sasikala Natarajan also belongs to the Thevar community.

Still, his promotion to stand-in chief minister in 2001 (when then-CM Jayalalithaa was disqualified by the country’s apex court on account of the Tansi land deal case) was unexpected.

“It has been a tremendous growth trajectory for him. Who would have anticipated this? He is extremely loyal but can that make him a good leader is the question,” said the former AIADMK member quoted earlier.

Some say Panneerselvam’s unassuming character and unwavering loyalty are both his strength and weakness. “His unassuming personality has gained him a puppet’s image,” a senior leader of the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam said, on the condition of anonymity.

Irrespective of the perception, Panneerselvam has been the one chosen to stand in for Jayalalithaa on many occasions —as chief minister in 2001 and 2014, and leader of the opposition in 2006. Most recently, he took charge of running the state and the portfolios that belonged to Jayalalithaa, 68, while she was hospitalized for over 70 days since 22 September.

Panneerselvam’s loyalty to Jayalalithaa is best captured by the fact that he refused to occupy the chief minister’s chair during cabinet meetings, and placed her photograph prominently on the table during all meetings.

There’s another picture of hers on his car dashboard, and a third in his shirt pocket, a practice that some other AIADMK ministers follow too.

Still, allegations that he was trying to amass power grew stronger within the AIADMK when he stood in for Jayalalithaa in 2014.

In the run-up to this year’s assembly elections in May, it was widely speculated that he was no longer in Jayalalithaa’s good books. “Panneerselvam’s haters are within his party and not in the opposition,” said the DMK leader quoted earlier.

But he has survived, and thrived.

“In a highly centralized party like the AIADMK, Panneerselvam is a great survivor,” said N. Sathiyamoorthy, a Chennai-based political analyst.

“No one could fill his No. 2 place in the party and after elections, he bounced back,” Sathiyamoorthy said.

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