Cover Story

Reluctant rebel

Print edition : March 03, 2017

O. Panneerselvam meditating at Jayalalithaa’s memorial in Chennai before announcing that he was breaking ranks with V.K. Sasikala. Photo: B. Jothi Ramalingam

O. Panneerselvam meditating at Jayalalithaa’s memorial in Chennai before announcing that he was breaking ranks with V.K. Sasikala. Photo: B. Jothi Ramalingam

Panneerselvam inspecting the oil spill near Ennore on the morning of February 5, the day Sasikala was elected general secretary of the AIADMK. Photo: B. Jothi Ramalingam

Leading the Republic Day celebrations in Chennai on January 26. Photo: S.R. Raghunathan

O. Panneerselvam, the man whose most notable quality was his unswerving loyalty to Jayalalithaa, reveals a steely side by challenging the leadership of V.K. Sasikala. Whoever wins this contest, it is clear that Tamil Nadu is heading for political uncertainty.

A little after 8:30 p.m. on February 7, when Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam emerged out of “Thenpennai”, his official residence located off Greenways Road in Chennai and hopped into his official vehicle, no one had any idea where he was headed. His head of security had already left, after he was told that there was nothing else to do for the day. He had told his staff that he might head to Poes Garden, the residence of the late Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, if V.K. Sasikala, its current occupant, asked to see him.

Panneerselvam, taking a leaf out of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) patriarch M. Karunanidhi’s book, misled his security staff about where he was headed. This strategy of not revealing the destination or giving misleading information about it was central to Karunanidhi’s practical approach to handling everyday politics. Surprise has its uses, he once told this correspondent, after a short-lived fast at the Anna Samadhi on the Marina in early 2009; it attracts eyeballs, throws opponents off guard—even if only for a few hours—and has the potential to significantly alter outcomes.

Even as the cavalcade reached Greenways Road, Panneerselvam asked the driver to proceed to “Beach Road” (Kamarajar Salai). No alarms went off. The top brass of the State police and the intelligence wings of multiple agencies, who are informed about the minute-to-minute details of the Chief Minister’s movements, did not think anything was amiss. After all, Fort St. George, the seat of power and the location of the Secretariat, was at one end of the stately Kamarajar Salai. Also, the police were not in the habit of according the same respect—which bordered on reverence and was reserved for Jayalalithaa, Karunanidhi, and, to a lesser extent, even M.K. Stalin, when he was Deputy Chief Minister from 2006 to 2011—to OPS, as Panneerselvam is popularly known. OPS, for them, was a political lightweight.

The police were caught napping. As the Chief Minister’s convoy approached the Ezhilagam T-junction at 8:50 p.m., where Walajah Road joins Kamarajar Salai, Panneerselvam, who, like most politicians in Tamil Nadu occupies the seat next to the driver, asked him to move to the opposite side of the lane. A few feet from the junction, towards the sea, is Jayalalithaa’s make-shift memorial. As the confused driver slowed the vehicle to a crawl, Panneerselvam opened the door and alighted from the car. At 8:55 p.m., he started walking towards the memorial. He stood with folded hands for a moment, head bowed in silence. A few minutes later, he sat down cross-legged. He closed his eyes, head bowed in reverence, and folded his hands in prayer. A few late visitors to the memorial did not even realise that Panneerselvam was seated inside.

Prime-time show

In India, 9 p.m. is prime time on television, when families gather around the TV to see tear-jerker soaps with their food plates in hand. For the politically inclined and the socially conscious, there are a range of often interesting and sometimes noisy debates to choose from. Panneerselvam was on prime time television exactly at the time when households switched on their favourite shows. The first visuals of Panneerselvam at the memorial came from a respected Tamil news channel which happened to have its TV crew close by. The official All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) channel, Jaya TV, arrived a little later and was allowed to film him inside the memorial. The channel did not air the visuals.

The suspense continued for exactly 40 minutes as people across the State watched in rapt attention not knowing what to make of the spectacle. Debaters on TV channels went silent trying to figure out what was happening even as a few Delhi-based journalists, on the basis of inputs from a senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politician, tweeted that Panneerselvam was going to break rank with the AIADMK. One of Tamil Nadu’s most popular soap opera producers, the actor Radhika, in an informal conversation with this correspondent, said that the TRPs of their mega serials have been affected since the day Panneerselvam decided to sit in penance at the memorial.

It was as if Panneerselvam was seeking direction from Jayalalithaa on the current political situation and what he should do: in fact, he did mention that he was at the memorial to clarify the many confusions that had taken hold of him. There’s also a moral angle to Panneerselvam’s conflict: Frontline had reported (“New Leaders, Old Problems”, February 3) that Panneerselvam was on the horns of a dilemma—on how to handle the fast-paced developments in the party.

Post Jayalalithaa’s death, a lone man’s humble prayer at the memorial presented the most powerful image yet in Tamil Nadu politics. Barring two aides, there was no one from the party or his household with him for a large part of the 40-minutes that he spent at the memorial. Even as Tamil Nadu watched him sit with folded hands and closed eyes, it was clear that Panneerselvam’s stock with the people was going up. Many in the crowd at the Marina began raising slogans hailing Panneerselvam, declaring him as the true follower of Jayalalithaa and the inheritor of her legacy.

Around 9:35 p.m., Panneerselvam wiped the tears in his eyes with his bare hands, rubbed his eyes, and stood up with folded hands. He knelt and touched the ground with his forehead, and then walked around the memorial once. He then emerged from the makeshift shamiana that stands over the memorial, turned back and headed towards his car, escorted by his now-enhanced security, even as the media screamed his name out, seeking a reaction. Panneerselvam turned in the direction of the waiting media, took a few steps towards them, allowed a full seven to eight minutes for the media to settle down, and announced that he was breaking rank with Sasikala. “I have come to Amma’s memorial to reveal some truths,” declared Panneerselvam, before launching a dignified yet firm attack on Sasikala. He said that former Minister and party presidium chairman E. Madhusudhanan’s name had been proposed for the position of general secretary initially and that he was unaware of the move to depose him as Chief Minister.

From zero to hero

From Zero Panneerselvam (political opponents in the State derisively called him that; in fact, it was the DMK’s working president Stalin’s favourite phrase during the May 2016 Legislative Assembly elections and earlier) he had become Hero Panneerselvam. The transformation from zero to hero took under an hour on that nippy Tuesday night.

Some of Panneerselvam’s contentions can be easily verified. It was clear that he was being kept out of the inner circle in Poes Garden, a fact that Frontline had recorded in the past. But even the events of February 5, the day Sasikala was elected the party’s general secretary, indicate that Panneerselvam was not officially informed of the event.

On February 5, Panneerselvam left his residence at around 9 a.m. to visit the Ennore coastline, where a massive oil spill, a result of a collision between two ships on January 20, was threatening to pollute much of the Chennai coast and endangering livelihoods. He was accosted by a news TV crew there and was asked about the AIADMK MLAs’ meeting. Panneerselvam just smiled at them and walked away. Later that afternoon, he proposed Sasikala’s name for the post of Chief Minister, couriered his resignation to the Governor Ch. Vidyasagar Rao, and thanked the people for their cooperation.

Three actions of Panneerselvam did not sit well with the larger, staged narrative of Sasikala being the unanimous choice of the AIADMK. One, Panneerselvam had begun the day by conducting his official duties, which included the visit to the Ennore coast. Two, in his resignation note to the Governor, he used the phrase “due to my personal reasons” before saying that he was tendering his resignation. Three, he wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, thanking him for the support he had extended during his two-month tenure as Chief Minister.

If the first action was a deliberate attempt to make it look as if he was unaware of the fact that Sasikala was being elected legislature party leader, the second one dropped the hint that all was not well with his resignation. Panneerselvam’s act of thanking the Prime Minister was clearly out of line: it was not as if the Prime Minister had sanctioned the funds that the State sought after Cyclone Vardah of December 13, 2016, or for the unprecedented drought conditions across Tamil Nadu.

One of the first important persons to move from Sasikala’s camp to Panneerselvam’s was V. Maithreyan, the three-time MP who was a member of the BJP before joining the AIADMK in 2000. He reached the official residence of OPS the same night, on February 7, and pledged his support. “Being an Amma loyalist, to continue Amma’s legacy, OPS remains the people’s only choice,” Maithreyan told Frontline. “That is why I support him,” he added. Namakkal MP, P.R. Sundaram, joined the OPS camp soon after. The 65-year-old agriculturist and two-time MLA said that the one consideration in his mind was his people: “The people of my constituency and my district told me very clearly that I have to be with the Chief Minister and strengthen his hands. Amma [Jayalalithaa] chose him as Chief Minister. I have to be with him at this time.” He said it was clear that the people of Tamil Nadu were behind OPS.

A few MLAs, too, have moved over to OPS’ side, but the Sasikala camp, clearly, has the majority required in the Legislative Assembly at this point. More than a dozen MPs have pledged their support for OPS, and the OPS camp claims that it is only a matter of time before others join OPS.

Given the fact that Sasikala has kept her MLAs in captivity at a resort, this process might take a while. But this not new in Tamil Nadu. Many in the OPS camp point to two such instances in the past: When the AIADMK founder M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) broke away from the DMK in 1972, he barely had anyone with him. But history is witness to the fact that he and his party did not lose an election ever, from the first one he fought until his death in 1987. The second is the case of the shortest-lived Chief Minister in Tamil Nadu’s history, V.N. Janaki.

After MGR’s death, his wife, V.N. Janaki, was chosen to succeed him—and this case, in a limited sense, mirrors the situation prevailing now—and she had the entire party with her. Her opponent in the party, Jayalalithaa, was humiliated in every possible way and driven out of the party. Just a few years later, Jayalalithaa not only took the party away from Janaki, but also led the AIADMK to victory with a massive mandate in 1991.

OPS growing in strength

Almost keeping in line with that script, a steady trickle of supporters is flowing into the OPS camp. On February 9, it was the turn of a former Minister and the presidium chairman Madhusudhanan. The designation might sound bombastic, but in Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK, it hardly amounted to anything. But in the post-Jayalalithaa scenario, the post of presidium chairman, acting as a kind of a moral beacon for the party, becomes an important one. Political observers do not miss the irony of Madhusudhanan occupying the post: he is not someone known for his oratorical skills or path-breaking speeches. It was just his street-smart ways that differentiated him in the narrow, dirty alleys of north Chennai, where he cut out his political space. Thus, while the Sasikala camp has the numbers, two of the three ranking leaders of the party, the treasurer, OPS, and the presidium chairman, are aligned against her. Sure enough, one of the things that Madhusudhanan did was to write to the Election Commission of India asking it not to recognise the election of Sasikala as the legislature party leader, said a source in the OPS camp.

This is one of the many wars that is raging, like a subtext, within the AIADMK. OPS is clearly winning the perception war. Not a single person from among the people that this correspondent spoke to—ranging from white collar employees to daily wage labourers—accepted that it was fine for anyone to don the mantle of Chief Minister. “It is a kind of special, higher responsibility. Only certain chosen people should occupy it,” a cab driver explained to me. Sasikala was not that special someone, he added.

OPS’ hands have been strengthened in this perception war by a few professionals, who have unhesitatingly moved to his camp without fear of the outcome in the current drama. One such professional is “Aspire” Swaminathan, who unofficially spearheaded the AIADMK’s social media campaign to great effect during the May 2016 elections. He was among the early supporters of OPS. Swaminathan proved his mettle almost immediately. In response to an “I support OPS” campaign, which listed a phone number for supporters to give a missed call, the OPS camp was flooded with calls. “The #isupportOPS missed call campaign has received overwhelming response, with over 1.2 lakh calls in just three hours,” said Swaminathan. “Of this, about 3 per cent of the calls are from outside India and about 6.5 per cent from outside Tamil Nadu,” he told Frontline.

Going by the support on social media, and anecdotal evidence from interviews and personal chats, it is clear that the people of the State are with OPS overwhelmingly. But the people’s representatives, the MLAs and the MPs, apart from the party hierarchy itself, are with Sasikala.

OPS did three things that fundamentally altered the narrative in his favour. Apart from announcing that Jayalalithaa’s Poes Garden residence, Veda Nilayam, would be converted into a memorial, he announced the setting up of a commission of inquiry to probe the circumstances of Jayalalithaa’s death. OPS later clarified that he did not have any doubts over the death, but will be setting up an inquiry commission so that any doubts in people’s minds would be cleared. He also directed the police to probe the charge that the MLAs were being held against their will at a resort. There is some controversy over how the Police Commissioner of Chennai responded to his directive, but OPS let the issue pass.

There are many who ask uncomfortable questions about Panneerselvam. Since he also holds the Home portfolio, many wonder why he did not initiate police action against those alleged to be holding the MLAs hostage in the resort in Koovathur. Panneerselvam was also found to be lax in taking action against AIADMK goondas who attacked journalists near the resort where the party MLAs are holed up

The more pertinent question that Manu Sundaram, the DMK spokesperson, raises in a Facebook post is this: “Why did you [Panneerselvam] not take any initiative to convert Veda Nilayam into Jayalalithaa Memorial before you resigned as Chief Minister on February 5, 2017?”

One more question in the minds of many, including Mani Sundaram, is this: “If you [Panneerselvam] were coerced/threatened to submit your resignation, why have you not filed an FIR or initiated police inquiry for the very serious charges you have made?”

The rebel

Even Panneerselvam’s critics agree that it takes a lot for someone like him to rebel and strike out on his own. He has been the quintessential party man, and he has a lot to lose if his gamble fails. In fact, at a function held about a decade ago, Jayalalithaa, speaking about the greed of today’s youth to get to positions of power as soon as they join the party, pointed to Panneerselvam’s slow ascent in the party. When an example is needed to showcase how an AIADMK man grows, it is always this person whose career is recalled.

She pointed out that OPS, who ran a tea shop in Periyakulam town, joined the AIADMK in 1977 as a member. In 1980, he was made Periyakulam town’s kazhaga organising member ( melamaippu piradhinidhi) of the 18th ward. In 1984, he rose to become the secretary of the 18th ward. Later that year, he was also inducted into a feeder organisation, the MGR Forum, as deputy secretary, Periyakulam. The next major leap for him came in 1993, when he was appointed town secretary of the AIADMK in Periyakulam.

In the 1996 local body elections, he was elected Periyakulam Municipal Chairman. The first time OPS got a district-level post was in 1997—20 years after he joined the party—as Theni district MGR Forum secretary. In 1998, he was chosen for a second time as town secretary, Periyakulam. The all-important post of party district secretary, Theni district—AIADMK is an exceptionally strong party in the district—was given to him in 2000. Just a year later, in the 2001 elections to the Legislative Assembly, he was given fielded in Periyakulam, and he won the seat comfortably.

He was made Chief Minister in 2001, but that was not a natural progression; it was a sign of the faith that Jayalalithaa placed in him. (Jayalalithaa became the first Chief Minister to be convicted under the Prevention of Corruption Act when special judge V. Radhakrishnan convicted and sentenced her on February 2, 2000, to one year’s rigorous imprisonment for legalising the illegal construction of five additional floors by Hotel Pleasant Stay, Kodaikanal.) After Jayalalithaa got back in the saddle, he initially held the Revenue portfolio. He was given the lucrative Public Works Department portfolio a little later, an indication of his meteoric rise after his election as MLA.

In 2004, OPS was given the task of making the AIADMK “Jayalalithaa-compliant” and was made secretary (elections) of the party. He was elevated to the post of treasurer in 2007, a post that has now come in handy as he battles Sasikala. He has sent an alert to the banks which operate the AIADMK account not to honour transactions of the AIADMK since he has not approved any.

In 2006, when the AIADMK lost power, he managed to win the same Periyakulam seat. Having seen the extent of his loyalty, Jayalalithaa gave him the difficult responsibility of being the Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the State Assembly, a make-or-break post as far as the AIADMK was concerned. Jayalalithaa was barely attending Assembly sessions, and OPS had the responsibility to create just enough noise to make sure that the government looked incompetent, inefficient and corrupt. This involved walking a very thin line: if he overdid this act, he would be thrown out of the House, or, worse, suspended for a period of time. A suspension would equal suicide because that would give another, equally honest, straightforward and, more importantly, loyal, MLA the opportunity to take a shot at the government. OPS negotiated this turf carefully. If he took the path of least resistance, he would have been seen as being too friendly with the DMK. This was a strict no-go zone for the AIADMK.

The AIADMK and the DMK have not been mere opposition parties; they have thrived on mutual hatred for each other. Members of the AIADMK, according to a few who have had first-hand interaction with Jayalalithaa, are encouraged to treat DMK men as enemies. Even attending social functions of one another is not viewed kindly. A conversation illustrating the extent to which the leader of the party went to ensure compliance was narrated by a senior person who joined the party a few years ago. The conversation went like this: “Personally, I have no problems with you remaining a friend of [a DMK leader]. But you should remember that the party cadre will not accept it. They won’t like it if you maintain that relationship with DMK people,” Jayalalithaa is said to have told the leader.

OPS rises

OPS’ rise was not a foregone conclusion though. He was nowhere on the radar of the elite or the media of Tamil Nadu when he was catapulted to the limelight as Chief Minister in 2001. When Jayalalithaa had to step down from the post for the first time in late 2001, there was much speculation about who would occupy the post. Many names did the rounds, from party senior K.A. Sengottaiyan to Nainar Nagendran, a first-time Minister. But Jayalalithaa chose a person who nobody had heard of, and whom the media had barely heard of. The first time that many heard the name O. Panneerselvam, a tea shop owner and a former Municipal Chairman from Periyakulam, a nondescript town in the Thevar heartland in southern Tamil Nadu, was after Jayalalithaa’s announcement.

Panneerselvam, who kept the Chief Minister’s seat warm, literally, from September 21, 2001, to March 1, 2002, never once stepped out of line. He signed files as directed by Jayalalithaa, did not occupy the Chief Minister’s chamber, stayed in his own ministerial chamber, and actively discouraged his family and friends from putting up posters hailing his elevation as Chief Minister. It did not go unnoticed in Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK, where the only quality that worked was loyalty.

Panneerselvam’s loyalty was rewarded again: after a court in Bengaluru held Jayalalithaa, Sasikala and a few others guilty of amassing assets disproportionate to their known sources of income and sentenced them to prison, Panneerselvam was again the choice for Chief Minister. This time, he held the chair from September 29, 2014, to May 23, 2015. Panneerselvam’s ability to remain out of the media spotlight, keep away from controversies of any kind, keep his family in check, prove his loyalty even when this is not asked of him, and, above all, his ability to convey to the leadership that he was loyal stood him in good stead.

When Jayalalithaa’s death was announced on the night of December 5, 2016, he was the natural choice to succeed her because he was the one who was chosen by Jayalalithaa herself on two different occasions. After Jayalalithaa was admitted to hospital, he was again chosen to handle her portfolios. The party did not look beyond him and he, along with a new Ministry, assumed charge just past midnight on December 6.

OPS was immediately tested. Cyclone Vardah was his first challenge. OPS went around the city soon after the cyclone hit the coast on December 13. His Ministers fanned out to the suburbs and it looked as if Jayalalithaa’s absence was not felt at all. The machinery worked like clockwork. Then came the issue of farmers’ suicides in the delta region, the January jallikattu agitation and the drought. Though the government was found wanting on some counts, it did remarkably well to recover ground and, in the final analysis, conducted itself well in the face of extreme challenges.

The immediate future

While OPS has been maintaining that he will be victorious in the long run, much work needs to be done. Refuting the claim that the BJP government is backing him is one thing. The Sasikala camp has been attacking him, saying that he has a connection with the DMK—the only point that will sell with AIADMK cadre. So far, OPS has dismissed this as nonsense and has made it clear that he will have nothing to do with the DMK.

Perceptions among the masses have a fickle life cycle. OPS’ main task now will be to make sure that the perception that he is the chosen leader stays with the people of Tamil Nadu. That is no easy task, especially if there are conciliatory noises from the BJP and the DMK. In the long run, it is this perception that will make or mar him.

As the current episode unfolds, it is clear that OPS is not without friends. Sasikala, who initially charged Panneerselvam of sleeping with the enemy, the DMK, changed tack on February 12 and ascribed the OPS revolt to the support of a particular “force”. In her anxiety to keep a window open for the BJP, she refused to name the BJP as this force.

Sasikala’s charge cannot be dismissed as nothing. The entire “show”, starting from February 7 night until now, has run very well because it seems to have been well choreographed. Capturing the people’s attention via a prime-time drama, the effort to meet all presspersons one-on-one—which lasted almost the whole night—and the events then on, indicate that there is a plan. This is not a lone man acting out his frustration.

This is where the role of the acting Governor comes in. Sasikala was elected on February 5, at around 2:45 p.m. The AIADMK sent the Governor fax messages, Sasikala claims, to his Udhagamandalam and Mumbai residences. From that time until 9:40 p.m. on February 7, there was no instability either in the AIADMK or in Tamil Nadu. It was after a full two and a half days that the trouble began. Even then, there was no word from the acting Governor.

It was not as if some huge prior commitments had held the Governor back. He was in Delhi for a meeting with the Union Home Minister, apparently attended a wedding, and attended a meeting with some Nobel laureates in Mumbai during this period. There was no political instability in Mumbai or any other emergency in the State of Maharashtra, which is under his charge too. Still, the Governor chose to come to Chennai only on February 9, two days after the media began asking why the acting Governor had still not come to Chennai.

Having swiftly met both the warring contenders, he made it clear that he was in no mood to call the leader of the majority, Sasikala, to form the government. He later denied an allegation that he had sent a report to the Centre in which he had stated that he had declined to swear in Sasikala because the judgment in the disproportionate assets case against her was expected shortly.

As the State slips into political chaos, the Governor sits tight-lipped. In the final analysis, the crisis in the AIADMK points to one issue: the manner in which Jayalalithaa emaciated the party and eliminated its second-line leadership is now coming back to haunt the party. It is pay back time. Many expected that the party would disintegrate with her passing away. That is now becoming a reality with the acrimonious and bare-all fight.

It is also a fact that the party that stands to gain most from this crisis is the DMK. The main opposition party is waiting with bated breath outside Fort St. George, looking in to see if the occupant is likely to vacate. But, more importantly, the political vacuum created by the AIADMK’s implosion will lead to gains for many political parties.

But in the current context, with the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) in tatters, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) being on the margins, and the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) not seen as a force to reckon with in Tamil Nadu politics, the BJP is placed well to cash in on the situation. It is a party waiting, with the required organisational structure in Tamil Nadu, for the final push.

A letter from the Editor


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