New Delhi: O Panneerselvam, in internet speak, is lit.
- Panneerselvam's third stint as Chief Minister ends today
- Rival Palaniswami takes oath, will take a trust vote
- Not giving up, says Panneerselvam, who was expelled by AIADMK
His mission to lose the qualifier of "acting" from his rank as Chief Minister was bumped today with rival E Palaniswami taking over from him, but Mr Panneerselvam -"OPS" - whose car was stripped of the lal batti or red light that gives it right of way, belligerently declared, "Our battle will continue." Belligerence, till recently, was not stock-in-trade for the 67-year-old. His USP, within his party, was his heart-on-his-sleeve devotion to its matriarch, J Jayalalithaa. He was well compensated for it: when she twice appointed him stand-in as she faced corruption charges, he refused to use her office or her chair, and placed her photograph at the head of the table for all cabinet meetings.
He maintains this same loyalty to "Amma"(mother) is the driving force of his actions that have split the AIADMK.
The vast majority of its legislators, 134 in all, are not with OPS - in spirit or in form. They are in a resort on the outskirts of Chennai, bused there a week ago to ensure they remained off-limits to OPS. When his representatives tried to drive there two days ago, they were turned away by the police. In written statements, the legislators have said that their bunkering is voluntary, and that their unequivocal choice for Chief Minister is Mr Palaniswami.
In fact, who they have chosen is VK Sasikala. Initially in the running against OPS for Chief Minister, she instead ended up in jail yesterday after the Supreme Court found her guilty of corruption in a case dating back to the 90s. Before she drove to prison, Ms Sasikala chose Mr Palaniswami as her proxy, who took oath today with a cabinet of about 30 members; he has upto 15 days to win a trust vote.
"The public is anguished that power is now with those responsible for Jayalalithaa's death," OPS said today, referring to the many online campaigns that accuse the AIADMK of violating the A-Z of democratic principles in blindly following Ms Sasikala's lead. Others in his small team said, "Proxies have the numbers, we have the people."
A former video cassette seller, Ms Sasikala lived with Ms Jayalalithaa for more than two decades, earning her the status of "Chinamma" or younger sister of Amma. And when Ms Jayalalithaa died after a long stay in hospital at the end of last year, the AIADMK smoothly, naturally, swiftly gravitated towards her aide. Within hours of Ms Jayalalithaa's death, Ms Sasikala orchestrated the oath-taking of OPS, and soon enough, became General Secretary, which made her the party boss. By taking control immediately, analysts spoke of how efficiently Ms Sasikala, pre-empted a leadership vacuum that would have been especially dangerous for a party habituated over decades to following the will of one leader.
When it appeared that all her ducks were in a row, she decided to become Chief Minister herself. The party met on February 5, made it clear that it was not endorsing but proposing Ms Sasikala's promotion, OPS resigned and was asked by the Governor to serve as caretaker Chief Minister. Then two nights later, in a made-for-television moment, he walked away from Ms Jayalalithaa's grave on Marina Beach with a big reveal: he had been forced to resign, and subsequently been instructed by "Amma's spirit to prevent the party from falling into the hands of those who did not have its best interests at heart."
Buoyed partly by public opinion which praised his handling, as head of state, of the aftermath of a cyclone and a week-long sit-in by students at the same beach where his mentor is buried, OPS was able to attract some supporters from within the AIADMK. 12 parliamentarians and about 11 state legislators have chosen him, though the roster has plateaued in recent days as it became clear that OPS was mightily outnumbered by his rival.
One of his team members, V Maitreyan, a founder of the AIADMK, met with the Election Commission in Delhi this afternoon to state that Ms Sasikala's appointment as General Secretary or party chief violated basic guidelines for voting and that she must lose the position. Ms Sasikala, now sharing a cell with two other women in Bengaluru, appointed her nephew as Deputy General Secretary yesterday.
For OPS, the options now are to either maintain his newly-minted status as a renegade while chiseling away at his rival's team - a prospect heavily dependent on patience and the tacit support of other parties - or to return to his political alma mater, if it offers him a face-saving passage.