Interview: O. Panneerselvam

‘They started ill-treating me’

Print edition : March 03, 2017

Former Speaker P.H. Pandian felicitating Tamil Nadu Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam at his residence in Chennai. Photo: K.V. Srinivasan

Interview with Chief Minister Panneerselvam.

OTTAKARA PANNEERSELVAM (66) has emerged as a politician who can no longer be dismissed as a lightweight. From a person who remained a non-entity behind a towering leader like Jayalalithaa, OPS, as he is popularly known, has come a long way to mount a surprise revolt against V.K. Sasikala within the party. He is deftly converting to his advantage the frayed tempers of the cadres and the seething anger of the people against the tacit manoeuvres of Sasikala and her family to usurp power. When he raised a banner of revolt from the sands of Marina he became an instant hero. The most startling announcement he has made is that he will appoint an inquiry commission on Jayalalithaa’s death, which, he told Frontline, will also cover her health condition during the week before her admission to hospital.

A simple and down-to-earth person, he “cried but did not lose heart”, as he explained to the party cadre in his “war against a gang of power and money-grubbers”. He shook hands with children and rubbed shoulders with all those who came to his residence to greet him. His connect with the cadres and simple ways are in total contrast to pompous and vulgar display of power by politicians. Remaining unperturbed by the fast-paced political developments that centred around him, he spoke to Frontline in Tamil on the issues that confront him. Excerpts from the interview:

The main accusation from the Sasikala camp is that you enacted a drama to remain in power and that you betrayed the party when you sat at the Jayalalithaa memorial.

Who enacts a drama? Who is the betrayer? The people and the cadre know all. My leader’s ‘atma’ [soul] knows. Sasikala was her close aide and was like a sister to her. Had my leader ever announced that Sasikala would lead the party in her absence? As a journalist, have you ever heard the leader saying that Sasikala would be her heir-apparent? But she made me Chief Minister, not once but twice and whenever she faced a crisis. That much of confidence and trust she had in me. These accusations do not merit any response. A family, which Amma kept inside her residence, is now out in the open to grab the party and power through unethical and fraudulent attempts, which no loyal cadre of Jayalalithaa would accept.

Do you mean to say that you are Jayalalithaa’s political heir? Some people claim that she was not very happy with your performance during her last days.

No. It was not so. Then why should she give me the party ticket to contest from Bodinaickanur in the last Assembly elections and make me a Minister again? Why should she retain me as the senior Minister, second only to her, in the Cabinet? Amma appointed me the party treasurer. But can anyone deny that she made me Chief Minister twice and gave me the senior-most position, similar to that of V.R. Nedunchezhiyan in both MGR Cabinets and Amma’s earlier Ministry? She thus, I feel, symbolically suggested to all that I would be her political heir. It was a message from our leader and it is you [media] who should disseminate this. Her unassailable confidence in me had irritated a few within the party. They waited for an opportunity for long for this moment.

But you are widely known for your political servitude. What is the reason behind this transformation? Your detractors say you are an opportunist and question your credentials.

By nature I am [simple]. And with a towering personality as a leader around, you naturally become one. I owe all to my leader and I do not see why I should not be subservient in front of her. I came up in the party from the lowest position—ward member of Periyakulam town panchayat in the late 1970s. Gradually I rose up in the ranks. Even Sasikala’s nephew T.T.V. Dinakaran knew about my loyalty when he contested from Periyakulam parliamentary constituency. But Amma made me an MLA and also a Minister. She gave me a name and a face. But after her demise I felt orphaned.

The vacuum my leader left emboldened undesirable elements within the party who despite knowing about my leader’s confidence in me attempted to settle scores. The way they conducted themselves when Amma was admitted to Apollo Hospitals and the way they treated many of us disturbed me. After her demise, when I was asked to take over the Chief Minister’s post for the third time I flatly refused. But Sasikala insisted on my taking over because the party was going through a crisis. She told me that I would be the consensus candidate and as the person identified by the late leader none would raise a question if I took over as Chief Minister. Realising the gravity of the situation, I accepted.

But since then things have gone from bad to worse. They started ill-treating me whenever I went to Poes Garden to meet Sasikala to discuss party affairs. I accepted her as general secretary since a few persons close to her insisted that she should be elected to the post to keep the party united. But they began interfering in the administration, instigating a few Ministers to give press briefings against me and declare that Sasikala should be the Chief Minister. Mind you, I was the Chief Minister and the Ministers who were appointed by me were launching a broadside against me. When I told Sasikala this, she just ignored it. Intimidations from her family members and those few persons close to her increased, causing trauma and pain. I remained silent initially, watching the family’s activities helplessly.

Why did such a complete and sudden turnaround take place?

From the moment I proposed Sasikala’s name at the legislators’ meeting on February 5, I lost my peace of mind and remained disturbed. I realised I had done something I should not have done, which my leader would not have approved of. I underwent a thorough self-introspection. Then I decided to go to the Amma memorial to calm my mind on the night of February 7. After a solemn prayer, clarity emerged. It was time to retrieve the party from the clutches of this one family. This I thought would keep Amma’s atma at peace. My conscience is clear now. I got liberated from the oppressiveness of a family that I had been facing since the days of the demise of Amma.

On M. Natarajan [Sasikala’s husband] and his role.

I need not tell this to a journalist. Our MLAs, MPs and functionaries know who is controlling the party today. A family, which had the advantage of being in her house, is attempting to usurp the party and power. Then how could you justify the expulsion of Sasikala and her family in 2011 and the readmission on sympathetic grounds the next year? In her letter of apology to Amma then, Sasikala pleaded that she had no political ambition and promised never to encourage anyone from her family to interfere in either party or State affairs. These people accuse me of enacting a drama. Who is enacting the drama today?

INQUIRY COMMISSION

What prompted you to announce that you would constitute a commission to inquire into the death of Jayalalithaa? You were at the hospital then and know more about it than the press and the general public.

Yes. From the day our leader was admitted to the hospital and until her demise after more than two months, all senior party functionaries, including me, were present. But none of us was allowed to see her. We were told that it was better not to put the patient at risk of infection. Hence no visitor, barring Sasikala and her family members, was allowed. But what disturbed me was the manner in which the Sasikala family handled the whole issue. We were kept out of the loop and did not know what was really happening. We, too, like the general public, were provided with bare details. There was an utter lack of transparency.

Hence, after going into all details and taking into account the sentiments of the people of Tamil Nadu, I have proposed an inquiry into the circumstances that led to the deterioration in Amma’s health, her hospitalisation, the treatment that was given to her, etc. The people have the right to know about their leader’s health.

The commission would also go into the developments that preceded her admission to Apollo Hospitals. The treatment she received at her residence, the doctors who monitored her heath, the medicines and whether she was brought to the hospital within the “golden hour” also would be probed. Her overall medical history would be sought from those who are today living in our leader’s residence, which would be made a memorial as per the wishes of the people of the State.

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