CHENNAI: O Panneerselvam, a quiet unassuming politician who owes the high points of his career to doing as he was told, on Tuesday torqued his party by declaring that he has no wish to stop serving as Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and has been coerced and humiliated into doing so by VK Sasikala, who is meant to replace him as head of the government.
Mr Panneerselvam’s disclosures were made late at night at a setting chosen carefully: the memorial at Chennai’s Marina Beach for J Jayalalithaa, who died as Chief Minister in December, and to whom he swore his allegiance with gestures like refusing to use her office or chair when he filled in for her on different occasions as a place-holder, including when she was jailed in 2014 for corruption.
Ms Jayalalithaa was ‘Amma’ or mother to lakhs of supporters. Ms Sasikala, who was her closest aide and lived with her, is ‘Chinnamma’ (mother’s younger sister). Though she has no political record, Ms Sasikala was made party general secretary after Ms Jayalalithaa died, a post held by the charismatic politician for nearly 20 years. Then, the party decided on the weekend to have Ms Sasikala formally take charge of the government.
Mr Panneerselvam had not commented on that decision till this evening. It was Ms Sasikala who ensured that he was sworn in as Chief Minister within hours of Ms Jayalalithaa’s death in an exercise aimed at protecting legislators from poaching by other parties as well as preventing a contest for the top post and a possible ungluing of a party firmly cemented around the leader it had lost.
It is not Mr Panneerselvam alone who has objected to Ms Sasikala’s promotion. Social media campaigns and public opinion has attacked the AIADMK for seeking to install a Chief Minister who has no administrative experience and has never contested an election.
However, commentators point out that Mr Panneerselvam has no real grip on legislators in his party – one of the reasons that he was readily and repeatedly chosen as a stand-in for Chief Minister. It would be hard for him to engineer a split in the AIADMK, they suggested, amid talk that the BJP and Mr Panneerselvam have been eyeing each other.
On record, the AIADMK said Mr Panneerselvam is operating solo and that the party continues to back Chinnamma. The party’s legislators have been summoned tonight by Ms Sasikala to the home she shared with Ms Jayalalithaa and still inhabits.
What happens next could be decided by Governor C Vidyasagar Rao who is expected in Chennai today. Ms Sasikala is expected to meet him to formally present herself as the rightful new Chief Minister with signatures of legislators as evidence of their approval.
The Governor has already accepted the resignation of Mr Panneerselvam who is now functioning as an interim or caretaker Chief Minister. The AIADMK either has to agree on its leader who then stakes claim to head the government, or, if there is large disagreement, competing factions have to prove they are the majority. The leader of the faction recognised as the AIADMK and not the spin-off would then have to win a trust vote. Given that the AIADMK was re-elected as recently as last year, most of its legislators are unlikely to favour forging a crisis by switching away from the party.