O. Panneerselvam

Quiet loyalist

Print edition : October 31, 2014

O. Panneerselvam gets emotional while taking oath as the Chief Minister on September 29. Photo: PTI

OTTAKARA Thevar Panneerselvam, “OPS” to friends and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) cadre, is simply a “Jaya-fearing man”.

Some people call him “Mr Faithful” for his unflinching loyalty to party supremo Jayalalithaa. She rewarded him for this loyalty by making him Chief Minister for the second time following her conviction in the disproportionate wealth case. The first time was in September 2001, in largely similar circumstances. He headed the government for about five months, until Jayalalithaa took over as Chief Minister again.

His humility before his leader has been criticised in political circles and outside, but the self-effacing “Amma” loyalist is impervious to jibes. He became a Minister in her government for the first time in 2001. As a member of her Cabinet or as Chief Minister, he practised utmost caution and refrained from doing anything that might irk the leader. “He is extremely careful not to create any misunderstanding or doubts in the minds of his leader and party cadre,” says a former AIADMK MP from Theni district who is now with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).

Panneerselvam’s home town, Periyakulam in Theni district, is calm after his recent elevation as Chief Minister. There are no signs of any celebration. Not even a handbill can be seen in the town congratulating him. “He has strongly warned cadre, friends and family members to desist from eulogising him,” says his childhood friend in Periyakulam.

Panneerselvam’s family, which migrated from Srivilliputhur a century ago to escape famine, settled down to do agricultural and dairy farming in Periyakulam. Today its members are engaged in moneylending. Significantly, they are Piramalai Kallars, a predominant caste in the region and one to which many political heavyweights in the district belong.

This background helped him when he had to compete against seasoned and senior party functionaries such as Sedapatti R. Muthiah and Cumbum Selventhiran, who later joined the DMK, and against leaders from rival parties such as the DMK’s L. Mookiah and the All India Forward Bloc’s N. Vallarasu and Santhanam. Theni district has been a bastion of the AIADMK since the time its founder, M.G. Ramachandran, chose to contest from Andipatti constituency from his hospital bed in the United States in 1984. Jayalalithaa was elected twice from here—in 2002, when she sought the people’s mandate after she stepped down as Chief Minister following the Supreme Court verdict, and again in 2006.

Panneerselvam won twice from Periyakulam, while the nearby Bodinayakanur elected Jayalalithaa in 1989 and Panneerselvam in 2011. When the party split after MGR’s demise, he initially chose to stay with the faction led by Janaki Ramachandran, MGR’s widow. The other faction was led by Jayalalithaa. But later, when Jayalalithaa became the leader of the unified AIADMK, he had no qualms about accepting her as his leader and submitting himself as a foot soldier.

Those close to Panneerselvam say his significant break came when T.T.V. Dinakaran, a nephew of Sasikala Natarajan, contested from the Periyakulam parliamentary constituency in 1999. Panneerselvam was entrusted the job of campaigning and he converted his house into an election office. “He worked tirelessly for his victory,” says N.V. Elangovan, the party’s Kodaikanal Union deputy secretary.

He submitted a detailed account on the election expenditure and returned the unspent money to the party. This honesty impressed Dinakaran, who ushered him into the confidence of those in the Poes Garden residence of Jayalalithaa. When Dinakaran fell out with the leader, Panneerselvam was quick to distance himself from him.

When he was made Chief Minister in 2001, he saw to it that he discussed everything with Jayalalithaa. “He knows what our leader wants and executes it meticulously. Such faithfulness is a rarity in today’s cut-throat politics of Tamil Nadu,” says O. Raja, his younger brother, who is the Chairman of Periyakulam Municipality, a post that his brother once held.

Raja says that his brother is the eldest son among eight siblings. “In fact, we do not, as many claim, run a tea stall in the town. When one of his friends wanted to start a business, he helped him to start it in our building,” he says. The family collects rent for it. Raja says his brother maintains a low profile in the family. “He never utters a word loudly. He is patient.”

In the politics of Tamil Nadu, these qualities have brought Panneerselvam to where he finds himself today. But surprises are not alien to politics.

Ilangovan Rajasekaran

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor