Tamil politics

Meet AIADMK's O Panneerselvam: Tea-shop owner to two-time Tamil Nadu chief minister

This profile, written ahead of state assembly elections in May 2016, traces the AIADMK leader's political career.

With Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa’s health critical, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s top leaders went into a huddle on Monday morning to discuss the party’s future. First in line in any succession would be O Panneerselvam, who has been acting chief minister ever since Jayalalithaa was admitted to the hospital on September 22. Panneerselvam took over as chief minister from Jayalalithaa on two previous occasions when she was unable to hold office, although both times it was said that she continued to rule ‘by remote control.’ This profile, written ahead of state assembly elections in May 2016, traces his journey:

Music blares from speakers as a motley group of customers sip tea outside the famed Rosie Canteen in Periyakulam, Theni district. The tea is hot, thick and sweet and costs double the usual rate – Rs 10. The premium is for its quality, say loyal customers. On the wall hang framed pictures of former Chief Minister MG Ramachandran and current Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, J Jayalalithaa.

Self-proclaimed lorry ‘tinkering’ mechanic, 50-year-old S Sekar, grins as he says that he has been a patron of the tea shop for the past 40 years. “At that time I used to parcel tea in a vaali (jug) at a cost of 15 paise per cup,” he reminisced. “Now parcel tea is Rs 18, while it costs Rs 10 to have it here. But I don’t mind. This is Theni special tea – ask anyone, they will say Theni tea is PV Canteen tea.”

Inside Rosie Canteen, initially started by OPS, hang pictures of former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MG Ramachandran and current Chief Minister Jayalalithaa. Credit: Sandhya Ravishankar
Inside Rosie Canteen, initially started by OPS, hang pictures of former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MG Ramachandran and current Chief Minister Jayalalithaa. Credit: Sandhya Ravishankar

Set up in the 1970s, Rosie Canteen was once called PV Canteen, named for its founders, O Panneerselvam and Vijayan, friends who grew up together. In the late 1980s, Panneerselvam handed over PV Canteen to his younger brother O Raja, and Vijayan went on to open his own flourishing tea and snacks shop across the road called Relax Canteen. O Raja lost his 10-year-old daughter Rosie Raja in a tragic drowning accident. PV Canteen was subsequently renamed Rosie Canteen in her memory. On the wall, a picture of the girl looks down upon visitors. “She was my chella pillai (dear child),” said Raja.

Hoardings have been erected across Theni detailing the AIADMK government's achievements but not a single one of them has a picture of O Panneerselvam. Credit: Sandhya Ravishankar
Hoardings have been erected across Theni detailing the AIADMK government's achievements but not a single one of them has a picture of O Panneerselvam. Credit: Sandhya Ravishankar

From Panneerselvam to ‘Kanneerselvam’

Meanwhile, Raja’s elder brother O Panneerselvam or OPS, entered politics, became a prominent leader of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, and rose to the chief minister’s post, not once but twice.

In 2001, he was installed as stand-in chief minister when his leader and sitting Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa was jailed. He famously refused to sit in the chief minister’s seat, preferring instead to occupy a chair next to it.

Since 2001, in every AIADMK regime, he has been a minister, holding the Finance and other important portfolios like Public Works and Prohibition and Excise. In 2014 again, he became the chief minister as Jayalalithaa was once again forced to go to jail. This time, he sobbed uncontrollably as he took oath for the second time as chief minister, earning him the derisive nickname Kanneerselvam (a play on the Tamil word Kanneer meaning tears).

Inheriting goodwill

Born into the Maravar caste, which is a sub-caste of Thevars, the dominant caste of southern Tamil Nadu, Panneerselvam is remembered as a quiet child. His given name was Pechimuthu, for the family deity Pechiamman.

“Our periyappa (father’s elder brother) was also named Pechimuthu,” explained O Raja, brother of OPS. “It is considered disrespectful in our community if youngsters call elders by name. As a result, no one would call my brother Pechimuthu by his name since our Periyappa might get offended. So his name became Panneerselvam.”

Panneerselvam was the firstborn of Ottakara Thevar, a farmer, and his wife Pazhaniamma, who begat a total of eight children. Ottakara Thevar, originally hailing from Srivilliputhur in Virudhunagar district, migrated to Theni in search of fertile lands, settling down eventually at Periyakulam. Ottakara Thevar was a successful farmer and a moneylender, who is remembered with fondness even three decades after his passing. Conversations at Rosie Canteen inevitably turn to the largesse of Ottakara Thevar, over tea.

A view of Rosie Canteen nestled between a temple and OPS' ancestral house in Periyakulam, Theni district. Credit: Sandhya Ravishankar
A view of Rosie Canteen nestled between a temple and OPS' ancestral house in Periyakulam, Theni district. Credit: Sandhya Ravishankar

“I’ve seen him as a young boy – he was big man with a loud voice who used to sit in an easy chair at his home next door,” said Sekar, the lorry ‘tinkering’ mechanic. “Periyakulam used to be a busy truck route in those days. A lot of trucks broke down here and the drivers had no money to repair it. Ottakara Thevar used to lend them money for repairs and tell them they could repay it on their way back. He was a benevolent man. No one went away empty handed.”

Ottakara Thevar’s benevolent moneylending especially touched the Muslim community in the area. Even today Muslim families say they owe “nandri kadan” (debt of gratitude) to the Thevar family. This goodwill was transferred automatically to his eldest son Pannerselvam, who took over from his father and expanded the wealth in the 1970s and ’80s. Apart from buying more farmland, OPS started a large dairy farm with a number of cows, naming it Thaai Mookambigai Pal Pannai. When the milk began to flow in large quantities, the idea of setting up a tea shop came about, resulting in PV Canteen.

After his father’s death in the mid-1980s though, the wealth was divided between the siblings. O Raja got PV Canteen which he later renamed Rosie Canteen and another brother O Balamurugan got the Thaai Mookambigai Milk Farm. By then, OPS had taken a fancy for charismatic cine actor MG Ramachandran and his newly-formed AIADMK party, delving actively into full-time politics. In 1996, he was elected the chairman of the Periyakulam Municipality.

The Thevar leader

“Panivu,” exclaimed Army veteran A Durairaj, as he nursed a hangover with a cup of tea at Rosie Canteen. Panivu, in Tamil, means humility. This is the word used most often to describe OPS by those who know him and of him.

“Panivu,” repeated his brother O Raja with a short laugh. “That is Panneer. He won’t shout at anyone for anything. He is always respectful. He is benevolent, like our father. He has sold a lot of our land for politics. No one can tell that he is a Thevar,” he laughed, referring to the deep-rooted caste affiliations of the family and the party. Thevars are the dominant caste in the district, with a population of 12.5 lakh.

OPS, say his voters, is a symbol of Thevar pride and dominance in the area. Those belonging to the same Maravar (Thevar) caste are eager to claim familial relationships with the popular leader.

“He is my Chithappa morai (meaning ‘similar relation to a father’s younger brother’),” said a neighbour of Panneerselvam, who requested not to be named. On further questioning it came to light that the neighbour was in fact not related by blood or marriage to the OPS family. “We are all Maravars and therefore of the same family,” he explained.

This sense of ownership and faith is evident among the Maravar community in the area. Truck driver S Sivasankaran, 52, was categorical in his declaration. “He will surely win this time too,” he said without a hint of doubt. “OPS respects everyone. He will take care of us. We trust him completely.”

Amma’s devotee

His critics, though, are not kind. Sharp attacks have been made on OPS for his extraordinary displays of devotion to his leader Jayalalithaa. OPS has been seen falling at her feet on stage at public rallies and prostrating in front of her helicopter even before it landed. Apart from sobbing uncontrollably as he took oath for the second time as chief minister in 2014, OPS also undertook a pilgrimage to Sabarimala and conducted prayers at temples across the state for his jailed leader Jayalalithaa.

“It is Amma (Jayalalithaa) who gave us life,” said O Raja, when quizzed about this uncharacteristic devotion for Jayalalithaa on OPS’ part. “My father was a fan of MGR but it is because of Amma that we are here today.”

OPS, though, was not always an Amma man. Originally entering politics due to his admiration for MGR, OPS was initially caught on the wrong side of the fence in 1987 when MGR died. The AIADMK split into two factions, one being headed by MGR’s wife Janaki Ramachandran and the other led by the charismatic Jayalalithaa. OPS, who was loyal to Janaki, soon switched sides when it became evident that Jayalalithaa would inevitably take over MGR’s mantle.

“Vennira Aadai Nirmala [who contested against Jayalalithaa as part of the Janaki faction] was staying at OPS’ house and started her campaign from there in 1989,” said PT Chellapandian, a leader of the rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Theni district, who lives next door to OPS’ ancestral home in Periyakulam. “I witnessed that moment when Jayalalithaa came on her campaign through Bodinayakanur in her very first election and Vennira Aadai Nirmala’s campaign crossed her in the opposite direction. OPS worked quietly against Jayalalithaa for a long time.”

Vennira Aadai Nirmala was a popular actor in Tamil cinema, and was so named as a film in which she acted, called Vennira Aadai (White Dress) was a blockbuster hit. Nirmala went on to lose against Jayalalithaa in 1989 and was a star campaigner for her in 2011.

OPS’ rise in Jayalalithaa’s favour followed his eager assistance and support to AIADMK candidate TTV Dhinakaran, a nephew of Sasikala Natarajan, a close aide of Jayalalithaa. It was OPS’ backing and vigorous campaigning which won TTV Dhinakaran a Lok Sabha MP seat from Periyakulam in 1999.

It is this caste affiliation with the Thevars, analysts say, which has helped the AIADMK gain a stranglehold of sorts in the southern districts. Apart from pockets of Kanyakumari district, the AIADMK swept across the southern and central parts of the state, meaning, in effect, that the Thevars had voted en masse in their favour. An alliance with Vijaykanth’s Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam helped sweep the northern districts as well. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the AIADMK swept nine out of 10 seats in southern Tamil Nadu, with the BJP taking Kanyakumari alone. Such is the support for the AIADMK amongst the Thevar caste, that even in Ramanathapuram, a dominant Thevar electorate voted for the party’s Muslim candidate Anwar Raajha, despite the opposition fielding Thevar candidates. Political pundits feel that Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK will continue to hold the edge in 2016, thanks to this major caste factor.

Murky dealings

Chellapandian too lays claim to family ties with OPS on the basis of caste, since he too is a Thevar. When asked what he thought of OPS, being a neighbour and a “relative”, Chellapandian smiled in a guarded manner. “MGR nallavaraa, kettavaraa?” he chuckled. In Tamil, this means – was MGR a good man or a bad man? The same applies to OPS, he continued. “There is no clear answer to that question. He is a peaceful and silent man but still waters run deep.” He would say no more on the topic.

Rumours abound of the OPS family’s murky business dealings in the southern districts. These allegations though could not be independently verified.

Grouses against the OPS family include their favouritism towards temples meant for Mukkulathor (Thevar) deities, to which huge donations are allegedly made by the powerful family. A charge of a mini government being run locally too is prevalent – police and government authorities in the district are said to hesitate before taking action against members of the dominant Thevar caste who are quick to proclaim allegiance to OPS.

OPS’ brother O Raja was quick to rubbish such allegations. “We are farmers with 30 acres of paddy and sugarcane farms and 45 acres of raw mango plantation,” he said. “We don’t go near films. We don’t know that business. People say all sorts of things about us.”

Power though appears to propagate its own fear. OPS is never spoken ill of, openly. Even critics from rival parties hesitate to speak about him, preferring to confine their criticism to election-related topics. What is undeniable though, is the support of the Thevar community for OPS, who has often been hailed by enthusiastic party men in Theni as the “Varungaala Mudhalvar” (future chief minister).

The challenge ahead

OPS’ challenge in 2016 will be to rally the Thevars together once again and convince them that he is indeed a steadfast representative of the caste. In 2011, he came to power on the promise that he would implement a change in reservation status from Backward Class to Most Backward Class for Thevars, so that they may avail of more government sops. That promise remains unfulfilled. Other electoral promises made to farmers too are yet to become reality.

“A year ago, a large number of Maravars agitated against OPS in Karuvelnayakampatti village near Bodinayakanur, for not implementing the promised MBC reservation,” pointed out KMS Mushak Mandhiri, Town President of the Congress party in Theni district. “Alcoholism is a big problem here, and there are no jobs. Despite OPS being finance minister and chief minister, this area has not developed in any way.”

O Panneerselvam's son OP Ravindran presiding over a temple function in Bodinayakanur, Theni district, on the occasion of special prayers for Jayalalithaa's birthday on February 24, 2016. Credit: Sandhya Ravishankar
O Panneerselvam's son OP Ravindran presiding over a temple function in Bodinayakanur, Theni district, on the occasion of special prayers for Jayalalithaa's birthday on February 24, 2016. Credit: Sandhya Ravishankar

A section of farmers too feel ignored, especially in the hilly areas of the district. “OPS promised us pattas for the farmers cultivating forest land historically but it is yet to be done,” lamented E Mookaiah, Theni district President of the Tamil Nadu Farmers’ Association. “He promised us solar lamps to scare away kaattu maadu (bison) in the forest areas but that has not been sanctioned either.”

OPS though, his friends say, is aware that it is proximity to power that has made him rich and powerful today. It is perhaps symbolic of his political strategy that his men in Theni floated rumours that Jayalalithaa would contest from Bodinayakanur, where OPS is the sitting MLA. The calculation was that this would be seen as proof of his proximity to the leader. Eventually, when AIADMK announced the candidate list, OPS had retained his ticket from Bodinayakanur.

This once tea-shop owner from Theni may not be the quintessential aggressive and mercurial Thevar but he most certainly is the consummate politician.

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