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Can Tamil Nadu's New Chief Minister O Panneerselvam Fill The Vacuum Left By Jayalalithaa?

Huge challenges ahead.

06/12/2016 4:19 PM IST | Updated 06/12/2016 5:48 PM IST
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Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu O. Panneerselvam.

From being a tea-stall owner O. Panneerselvam, the new chief minister of Tamil Nadu, has come a very long way. And he has never tired of reminding anyone who would care to listen of his humble origins.

Having filled in for his leader, the late J. Jayalalithaa, on four different instances, he was finally sworn in as the chief minister this morning. As the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) struggled to ensure there was no political vacuum in the state after the demise of its leader, Panneerselvam seemed to be the most obvious choice to take on the mantle.

Time and again, the man had proved his allegiance to the party and the leader, stepping up to save the day as Jayalalithaa was either indisposed by poor health or was arrested for corruption. His reputation though is far from spotless.

In 2001, he served as the interim chief minister for six months, when Jayalalithaa was disqualified by the Supreme Court in the Tansi land deal case. After a Bangalore court sentenced her to four years in jail and fined her ₹100 crore in a corruption case in 2004, he filled in for her once again. Finally, with Jayalalithaa admitted to Apollo Hospital in Chennai since 22 September, Panneerselvam took on the responsibility of managing her portfolios.

Time and again, the man had proved his allegiance to the party and the leader, stepping up to save the day

Although the 65-year-old has never failed to express his utmost devotion to the beloved Amma, bursting into tears and keeping a photograph of her in her pocket while taking the oath to office, critics have been suspicious of his ulterior motives.

He caught the attention of his departed party chief about a decade ago, when she had gone to Andipatti constituency, in Theni, to file her nomination for the assembly election. According to The Times of India, the turning point in his career came in 2006, when he reached into his pocket to pull out a spotless white handkerchief to wipe the carpet on which Jayalalithaa was to walk on.

With such unflinching, soft-spoken manner and public display of veneration, it wasn't difficult for him to win over the faith of his leader, who had a reputation for not trusting even her closest allies. According to journalist Vaasanthi, who wrote a biography of Jayalalithaa, "It was said that Panneerselvam had moved into the compound of Poes Garden and all the files went for her scrutiny before he signed."

The turning point in his career came in 2006, when he reached into his pocket to pull out a spotless white handkerchief to wipe the carpet on which Jayalalithaa was to walk on

In spite of being a so-called loyal caretaker, his own ambitions were not exactly subdued. Panneerselvam's detractors call him a master opportunist, while the News Minute reports that relations between him and Jayalalithaa soured after an alleged hashtag #OPS4CM began to trend on Twitter. Some claimed it was a ploy by the rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party to create an internal schism in the AIADMK. The rift, however, never quite happened and all seemed to have been soon forgiven, as Panneerselvam found his way back into Amma's good books. Belonging to the Thevar community, one of the OBCs, he has also taken care not to displease Jayalalithaa's closest aide Sasikala Natarajan, who comes from the same group.

As the new chief minister, Panneerselvam will hold all portfolios that Jayalalithaa had, including home ministry, besides finance. He has retained all members of her cabinet as well, which is a wise move for someone whose key challenge will be to hold the party together and, in time, try to shift the loyalty of AIADMK supporters and workers towards him.

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