On Tuesday, about 20 days after Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa was hospitalised in Apollo Hospitals in Chennai, the government has allocated all the portfolios of the CM to O Panneerselvam, state finance minister. Popularly known as OPS, he held the post of CM two times earlier, in absence of Jayalalithaa. Considered to be one of the trusted aides of Jayalalithaa, he was among the leaders who fell out of favour with her before the recent assembly elections. Still, he did not suffer much damage unlike other senior leaders who were all either thrown out of party posts or forced to contest in tough seats in the elections to get defeated as Jayalalithaa wanted.
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After Sasikala, what makes OPS a second-in-command in the party? What were those qualities that helped him to gain confidence of ‘Amma’? Talking to multiple sources and officials who have seen OPS’s style of functioning, it is assumed that OPS may be the finest option before AIADMK to silence the rivals who make a noise on Jayalalithaa’s absence.
Gift of God
Hailing from a middle-class family in Periyakulam in Theni district, Panneerselvam may be one of the few such leaders who could claim a longer legacy in the party compared to many others. “A strong follower of MGR and his party, his biggest dream was to become the chairman of Periyakulam Municipality. After he fulfilled that dream in 1996, what all positions including MLA, minister, CM posts given to him were like a ‘Gift of God’ or ‘Gift of Amma’ for him. Each time he gets an elevation, he take it as a bonus as he had fulfilled his biggest dream 20 years ago,” said a close aide of Panneerselvam who assist his family and family run businesses in Theni.
Man of Patience
One thing that Jayalalithaa had always noticed in OPS was his patience. Even senior leaders in the party would agree that there were not many leaders like OPS who never tried desperately for any position. When AIADMK leaders joined DMK after Jayalalithaa’s first regime, in 1996, OPS was one among the few who stood by Jayalalithaa. Even when the state intelligence had given reports of corruption and huge wealth amassed by his close relatives, Panneerselvam was apologetic. “He was the first who offered to return all that his family earned in absence of Amma,” said a senior leader. Moreover, the number of corruption charges raised against Panneerselvam was also relatively less, compared to senior leaders and top ministers who recently fell out of favour and removed from party posts.
When OPS was made the CM in 2014, a period when Jayalalithaa was imprisoned, he had been shying away from
convening the winter session of legislative assembly, which should have started in October itself. That was the point when DMK leader M K Stalin called him a ‘benami’ CM.
Calling him a ‘Benami’ of Jayalalithaa, Stalin said Panneerselvam’s helplessness being in the CM post can neither be condoned or pardoned. “Your duty is to serve the people of Tamil Nadu, your subservience to convicted criminals (Jayalalithaa and Sasikala) cannot be above that,” he said. Panneerselvam was among the many ministers who broke in tears during a swearing-in ceremony in absence of Jayalalithaa, who was convicted by a Bangalore court in an asset case then. Being the CM, he refused to sit in CM’s room and he prevented the police from giving him undue security.
A leader in the making
Unlike his two chances to serve as CM in the past, the latest responsibility to handle CM’s portfolios is going to be crucial for OPS especially when there is an uncertainty about the time required for Jayalalithaa to come back after her treatments. “He is neither a good boss nor a commander. But he wouldn’t be finding it difficult to handle the system as there is already a well-oiled mechanism to run the government,” said a senior official who worked under Panneerselvam. With Sasikala controlling the power in absence of Jayalalithaa and advisor Sheela Balakrishnan mentoring the governance and crucial policy decisions, the government will run on an auto-pilot mode. And the significance of Panneerselvam would be that his new responsibilities would be more than enough to silence a section of opposition parties demanded for a new CM.