From Chai Wallah to Chief Minister: Tamil Nadu’s O Panneerselvam
He owned a dairy farm and then opened a tea stall. Later, he joined AIADMK & has been loyal to Amma ever since.
Following Jayalalithaa’s cardiac arrest on 4 December, all members of the AIADMK were called to Apollo Hospital to pledge their support to O Panneerselvam as Amma’s successor. But who is O Panneerselvam?
OPS: The Man Himself
- O Pannerselvam or OPS belongs to the Thevar caste of South India and is the first man from his caste to have a successful, high profile political career.
- He was given the name Pechimuthi when he was born, which was later changed to Panneerselvam because an elderly person in the family had the same name.
- He was the first of Ottkara Thevar’s eight children. Thevar, a farmer, and his wife, Pazhaniamma, settled in Periyakulam, Theni after searching for fertile land.
- Ottkara Thevar came to be a generous money-lender, especially with the Muslims of Periyakulam, who still feel indebted to Thevar.
- This goodwill automatically passed to Panneerselvam, who expanded the family’s wealth in the 70s and 80s. He also expanded the family business by opening a dairy farm.
- When his father passed away in the mid-80s, one brother received the tea stall and another, the dairy farm as inheritance. By then, OPS was fascinated by cine star MGR and his political party, AIADMK and joined politics full-time.
OPS’ Political Journey
- In the 1970s, he set up a tea-stall called PV Canteen in Theni, which he later handed over to his brother in the 80s, who renamed it Rosie Canteen.
- He then joined politics and rose in the AIADMK ranks. Since 2001, he has held an important rank in every cabinet of Jayalalithaa’s, usually Finance and other key departments such as Public Works or Prohibition and Excise.
- Sources close to him say that OPS only ever wanted one dream to come true: to become the chairman of the Periyakulam Municipality. He achieved this dream in 1996 and since then has viewed all cabinet positions and even being the CM as bonus gifts with God’s grace.
- In 1987, when his beloved leader MGR died and AIADMK split, OPS was momentarily caught on the wrong side of the fence supporting MGR’s wife, Janaki Ramachandran. When it became clear that Jayalalithaa was to succeed as the next leader, he made his amends and devoted himself to her.
- He served as Chairman of Periyakulam Municipality until 2001, when he was elected to the State Assembly and made Revenue Minister by Jayalalithaa.
Jayalalithaa’s Loyal Understudy
- OPS holds two key portfolios, Finance and Public Works, in the Jayalalithaa ministry.
- He is one of four trusted aides of Jayalalithaa, who only fell out of favour with her before the recent assembly elections, but without much damage to his career.
- He has taken interim charge as the CM twice before in Jayalalithaa’s stead: once in 2001 and once in September 2014 – both times when Amma was jailed.
- In 2001, when Jayalalithaa was briefly jailed, he famously refused to sit on her chair, choosing to sit on an empty chair next to hers instead.
- Since 11 October 2016, Panneerselvam has been handling all key portfolios, following Jayalalithaa’s admission into Apollo Hospital.
But is OPS Loyal to a Fault?
- Critics argue that OPS is loyal to Jayalalithaa, but like a weeping psychophant. Apart from crying uncontrollably while taking oath on 2014, OPS has also conducted prayers at Sabarimala for his jailed leader.
- After Jayalalithaa was acquitted in the Tansi case, Vaasanthi writes in Amma: Jayalalithaa’s Journey from Movie Star to Political Queen that “poor Panneerselvam” was the most relieved...
... who, like Bharata waiting for Rama’s return from his exile in the forest, was waiting for Amma’s return.
- He has refused to sit on Jayalalithaa’s chair in all meetings, and conducts cabinet sessions with her photograph on his desk. There is one on his car dashboard, and another photo of her in his shirt pocket.
- It is this loyalty and his unassuming personality that make many feel that while he may be a pragmatic leader, he does not have the gravitas to capture the imagination of the lakhs of Amma’s followers who will be looking towards him for guidance.
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