For someone who has been a three-time Chief Minister, O. Panneerselvam is still mostly remembered for the two times that he rebelled. While his three times in the hot seat were spent with acknowledged subservience to what was then the true power source in the AIADMK — former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, and the third time, briefly, to her memory — his acts of rebellion truly stand out.
Starting out as an AIADMK worker in his native Periyakulam, he rose through the ranks, serving as the Periyakulam municipal chairman before being catapulted to Chennai’s political firmament. He was the dark horse that Jayalalithaa picked to head her government in September 2001 after the Supreme Court effectively barred her from contesting in elections. He established a government that was often described as a ‘puppet’ and held charge for six months until Jayalalithaa was granted relief by the Madras High Court and won in a by-election. No one expected Mr. Panneerselvam to be ambitious, and he was not, he meekly resigned his post, and waited in the wings, grateful, by his own admission, for his leader’s attention.
Mr. Panneerselvam was the person Jayalalithaa turned to again when she was convicted in a disproportionate assets case in September 2014. His understanding was clear: he was to do her bidding without question. He was ready with his resignation once more in May the next year, after the Karnataka High Court acquitted Jayalalithaa in the same case. He seemed remarkably without any ambition. It was the following year, after the demise of Jayalalithaa, that the AIADMK legislature party found in him a ready replacement. No other leader had been chosen by “Amma” to lead them; in Mr. Panneerselvam, they were just going with her decision in the past.
Mr. Panneerselvam then became the Chief Minister for the third time on December 5, 2016, the night his leader died. While speaking of Ms. Sasikala with what was noted as his characteristic servility and voluntarily resigning in February 2017 to make way for her to become the Chief Minister, two days later he had a show of conscience and sat in protest on the beach to launch his ‘dharmayudham’ against her. She removed him from the party and appointed Edappadi K. Palaniswami.
It was in August 2017 that the two factions in the party merged again. With Mr. Palaniswami fulfilling two of Mr. Panneerselvam’s requests — to remove Ms. Sasikala from the party and appoint a commission to inquire into Jayalalithaa’s death — their paths met again, and they did walk side-by-side, albeit in misstep sometimes, until the fractious parting of July 11, 2022. Mr. Panneerselvam, 71, a survivor of many trials, has managed to inveigle himself back into political prominence a number of times in the past. What he will make of this set of events remains to be seen.