A stopgap Chief Minister who became unstoppable

People thought Sasikala’s act smacked of naked ambition

Updated - February 09, 2017 11:21 am IST

Published - February 09, 2017 01:31 am IST - CHENNAI

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam at the Jayalalithaa memorial in Chennai.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam at the Jayalalithaa memorial in Chennai.

Overnight on Tuesday, an unlikely hero was born in Tamil Nadu. He rose from the ashes of a pliant, acquiescent man, even genuflecting man.

The metamorphosis of O. Panneerselvam was spectacular as it was unexpected, or perhaps because it was unexpected.

After 40 minutes of absolute stillness at the memorial of his leader and former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, Mr. Panneerselvam arose, to turn on his recent past and to plunge the knife in, and twist it, repeatedly, on the current leadership in the AIADMK and its general secretary.

The Brutus who was swayed into assassinating Caesar, if you will. But in his address to the media later, the veritable Mark Antony delivered a dignified funeral oration that turned the public tide against AIADMK general secretary V.K. Sasikala, and those on her side. The task was half done for him though.

For those in Tamil Nadu, popular animosity against Ms. Sasikala, particularly since Sunday when she put her hand up for the post of the leader of the legislature party, was quite palpable.

While her ministers, including Mr. Panneerselvam, and MLAs stuck by her, it was clear that public sentiment, for whatever it was worth, weighed overwhelmingly against her.

People thought the act smacked of naked ambition, and that the urgency of it all was suspect.

They said as much on social media. Be that as it may, it did seem that there were no illegalities involved, and nothing stood in the path of Ms. Sasikala’s anointment as chief minister. Until Tuesday night that is.

Mr. Panneerselvam’s announcement at his leader’s memorial, where he invoked her spirit, threw a spanner into the works.

As he spoke slowly, deliberately and in a dignified manner, the details of the palace intrigue emerged, and the plot unravelled.

He spoke sedately of the humiliation heaped on him, and the persistent efforts to hustle him to propose Ms. Sasikala’s name to the position of, firstly, the general secretary of the party, and subsequently, the Chief Minister of the State, and the involvement of other ministers and some members of her family in this. All of this, he did with a smile.

When the insider speaks

This is precisely why Mr. Panneerselvam emerged a hero with his daring act of rebellion.

Here was the insider, the abider who was now rebelling, threatening to tell all, and invoking both the name and spirit of Jayalalithaa.

Years of lack of transparency, and cloak and dagger politics have left the public of the State thirsty for information on the internal workings of the party, and the government. It helped that he countered accusations made against him with dignity, a mild disposition and even a smile.

On Ms. Sasikala’s charge that she had spotted him smiling at the Opposition leader in the Assembly, he deftly feinted, and then lunged forward with the riposte about how the ability to smile distinguished the humans from animals.

People instantly seized on this lone voice of dissent, charmed by his gentlemanly opposition, smiling countenance, swayed by his controlled aggression, and they tweeted his statements, pushing them to the viral zone, building a shrine for him on social media.

On his pedestal now, Mr. Panneerselvam will be judged constantly; people’s expectations of him will mount even as he will remain restricted by the numbers game; he will be under pressure to sustain his new persona.

A metamorphosis, after all, can often be traumatic for the one that undergoes it. In a non-Kafkaesque universe, however, we just might write an ending that is not inevitably tragic.

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