O Paneerselvam: Tamil Nadu's newest political hero

Last Updated: Wed, Feb 08, 2017 18:13 hrs
Will prove my strength in assembly session: Panneerselvam

Constantly mocked for his reticence, three time Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, O.Paneerselvam finally revolted yesterday. Days after elevation of V.K Sasikala in what seemed to be a unanimous decision by AIADMK, OPS sent shockwaves through the state when he landed up at his leader Jayalalithaa’s memorial at Marina beach last night. Speaking to the press more after a half an hour long silent meditation and prayer, OPS made a host of allegations against the AIADMK leadership, including that he was forcefully made to resign.

This article in The News Minute gives the five biggest takeaways from his press conference. Since then, there has been a flurry of activity as Sasikala summoned MLAs and top leaders to Poes Garden. At a meeting today at the Party headquarters in Chennai, Sasikala claimed that she had the support of 131 MLAs and remained defiant.

OPS, however, has become a social media star and is quickly garnering support from public for standing up to Sasikala. Known to be a man of few words, OPS was known only for his undying loyalty to late Jayalalithaa.

Who could forget these visuals of a tearful OPS taking oath as Chief Minister for the second time in 2012, when Jayalalithaa was arrested following conviction in the corruption case.

Jayalalithaa was of course all praise for his patience and hard work during this public meeting. She cited him as a role model for youngsters who are always in a hurry to achieve power and success

Tracing his journey from 1977 when he first joined the AIADMK, she said that he started as a representative of the 18th ward of Periakulam Nagar’s party unit. In subsequent years he went on to lead the local youth wing and finally in 2000, he became the Secretary of the Theni party unit. In 2001, he was first elected the MLA of Periakulam. But perhaps the best characterisation of OPS comes from this quote by Jayalalithaa herself –

When Rama was sent into exile and wasn’t able to sit on the throne, the kingdom was given to Bharath. But Bharath refused to sit on Ram’s throne. When Ram came back from exile, Bharath gave the kingdom and throne back safely to Ram

This of course refers to Paneerselvam’s two stints as Chief Minister, who was always handpicked by Jayalalithaa as a front while she called the shots from behind the scenes. The loyalty of course remains unwavering to this day, as OPS never fails to invoke Amma in all of his speeches.

But choosing to be a low profile leader, not much else is known about his background. Tamil Glitz provides some basic information about OPS in this video.

The Scroll put together this profile of him prior to the Assembly elections last year. The eldest son of a farmer and money lender called Ottakara Thevar, OPS built on his father’s goodwill and wealth, and made a name for himself locally.

Ottakara Thevar’s benevolent money lending especially touched the Muslim community in the area. Even today Muslim families say they owe “nandri kadan” (debt of gratitude) to the Thevar family. This goodwill was transferred automatically to his eldest son Pannerselvam, who took over from his father and expanded the wealth in the 1970s and ’80s. Apart from buying more farmland, OPS started a large dairy farm with a number of cows, naming it Thaai Mookambigai Pal Pannai. When the milk began to flow in large quantities, the idea of setting up a tea shop came about, resulting in PV Canteen.

Following his father’s death, all of these properties were divided among the brothers and OPS went on to join the AIADMK, fascinated with cinema star and leader MGR. In fact, according to the same piece in The Scroll, the loyalty to Jayalalithaa did not come immediately. In fact, during the election soon after MGR’s death, OPS was said to have quietly worked against Jayalalithaa by supporting the candidate who was fielded against her by the rival faction.

OPS was initially caught on the wrong side of the fence in 1987 when MGR died. The AIADMK split into two factions, one being headed by MGR’s wife Janaki Ramachandran and the other led by the charismatic Jayalalithaa. OPS, who was loyal to Janaki, soon switched sides when it became evident that Jayalalithaa would inevitably take over MGR’s mantle. 

The AIADMK has tweeted this poster – “How can we forget – OPS campaigned against Honourable Amma on behalf of the Janaki faction”

His proximity to Jayalalithaa came only in 1999 when he campaigned for TTV Dinakaran, Sasikala’s nephew who won the election as MP from Periakulam. Ironically, in last night’s press conference, OPS hinted that several members of Sasikala’s family were trying to take over the party. He also said that his good work during the Vardah cyclone which created havoc in the city and his prompt handling of the Jallikattu issue irritated Sasikala. OPS is seen here overseeing the clearing of uprooted trees. He was appreciated by many for being proactive and hands on.

According to The Daily O, the press conference has been very effective in turning the support to him.

The "caretaker CM" had to give one strategic speech to tell Tamil Nadu that Sasikala was not happy with how efficiently handled the series of misfortunes befalling his state - from Cyclone Vardah, to Jaya's death, to the Jallikattu uprising and then the Ennore oil spill. Gaining both sympathy from the media as well the general populace, OPS' masterstroke had come later than sooner, but it had been effective.

G.Pramod Kumar writes in The First Post that OPS has several things going in his favour including possible support from the Centre due which the Governor chose to stay away from Chennai. He has also banked on the fact that Sasikala and her family were never the chosen ones by Jayalalithaa herself and by calling them out specifically, he has echoed the sentiments of the general public despite that fact that MLAs may be on Sasikala’s side. Given that both factions are Thevars also shows that they are more or less on an equal footing to use the caste card in their favour. Kumar concludes –

highlight of the story is this: Tamil Nadu has a new, unusual political star - OPS, and people have already started loving him. In the coming days, a lot of movies stars and public figures will hail him as their favourite. That’s how public sentiments work in Tamil Nadu.

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