"Antha manushanukku bayangara adishtam, sirthat man is very lucky.

This is what members of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, waiting outside the Apollo hospital where Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa has been admitted, had to say about state Finance Minister O Panneerselvam on Tuesday.

Ever since she was hospitalised on September 22, there has been much speculation about Jayalalithaa’s health as well as who will handle the affairs of the state in her absence. The second question was put to rest on Tuesday, when state governor C Vidyasagar Rao announced that Jayalalithaa's portfolios – key among these public department and home affairs – would be divested to Panneerselvam, who is also the AIADMK treasurer. Jayalilithaa continues to hold the post of chief minister.

For the third time in his political career, OPS, as the finance minister is popularly known, finds himself in an enviable position. But unlike in 2001 and 2014, when he was made chief minister for brief periods because Jayalilithaa had to step down after courts ruled against her in various corruption cases, the latest elevation carries more importance as it indicates his position as the AIADMK chief's second-in-command in the party.

Earlier this year, there was speculation that her loyal understudy had fallen out of favour with Jayalalithaa and OPS was reportedly not invited to two key meetings chaired by her. Rumours of a rift between the finance minister and Jayalalithaa's close friend Sasikala had also been doing the rounds for months, though there have been no signs of this in public.

When the AIADMK won the assembly elections in May, OPS was made finance minister but was divested of the prestigious Public Works Department portfolio, which he had held during the party’s previous tenure from 2011-’16. This was attributed to his relationship with Jayalithaa going sour.

Tuesday's development, however, takes his status up a few notches.

Rapid rise

His was a rapid elevation in the party that no one had anticipated. When OPS was named chief minister by Jayalalithaa in 2001 after her appointment was declared void by the Supreme Court because she had been convicted in a land-grabbing case, the decision took party members by surprise.

When the AIADMK legislative party met to elect Panneerselvam as its leader in September that year, most in the media did not even know who he was.

For many party leaders, it is still not clear what Jayalalithaa saw in OPS, then a legislator from the Periyakulam Assembly seat. For one, there was no paucity of enough senior leaders with governance experience in the party.

For instance, there was C Ponnaiyan, finance minister at the time, who had been in the AIADMK since the time is was founded by MG Ramachandran in 1972, and party leader KA Sengottaiyan, who was considered very close to Jayalalithaa and managed her election campaigns.

In 2001 and again in 2014, OPS, sobbed as he was sworn in as chief minister – demonstrating his sorrow at taking over his leader's office.

Humble beginnings

It had been a long an eventful journey for OPS, born in Periyakulam in the state’s Theni district in 1951, who used to run a tea shop in his home town. Like many of his generation, he was charmed by MGR, as the AIADMK’s founder, formerly a movie star, was popularly known.

OPS' first big break came in 1996, when he became the chairman of the Periyakulam municipality on an AIADMK ticket. At the time, AIADMK was witnessing an exodus of sorts shortly after a humiliating defeat in the Assembly elections earlier that year – where it won just four of 234 seats.

But Panneerselvam stayed with the party. A former AIADMK minister, who wished to remain anonymous, told Scroll.in why OPS had turned down offers from the rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam who was in power at the time.

"For him, MGR was divinity,” the leader said. “He once told us MGR's soul would have never forgiven him had he ditched the AIADMK and gone to Karunanidhi", the DMK chief.

Political commentator R Duraisamy said Jayalalithaa's decision to make OPS chief minister could have been a calculated attempt to ensure there was no challenge to her position in party. "Maybe she did not trust the other senior leaders,” he said.

Second stint

Post 2001, OPS consolidated his position in the party. After Jayalalithaa returned as chief minister in March 2002, when she was acquitted by the Supreme Court in the land grab case that she had to rescind her post over, she made him public works minister. By May 2011, he had emerged as Jayalalithaa's most trusted party member and functioned as the number two in the government when the AIADMK stormed to power that year.

In September 2014, when Jayalithaa had to step down as chief minister after she was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment in a disproportionate assets case by a Bengaluru court, it was clear that OPS would take her throne in her absence. Party officials said Jayalalithaa took the decision to appoint OPS as chief minister at the trial court complex in Bengaluru the moment the judgment was delivered.

An AIADMK official said OPS was non-confrontational and tried to reach an amicable solution to any crisis in the party. "He understood that he became chief minister at the mercy of the leader," the functionary said, adding that Panneerselvam, despite his prominence in the party, was never arrogant with his colleagues. This could also be because Jayalalithaa has never declared anyone as her political heir.

But this did not mean he was docile. As chief minister, OPS took on the Opposition in the Tamil Nadu Assembly and came out victorious many times, even though he was repeatedly ridiculed as a "benami chief minister" who was doing Jayalithaa’s bidding.

The former AIADMK minister said, "In his second stint as chief minister, we saw a stunning transformation. From the shy man from Theni in 2001, he was now countering the opposition with authority.”

At the same time, reports emerged that his equation with Sasikala was deteriorating. Duraiswamy said one reason for the rift could be that Sasikala viewed OPS, both from different sub-castes of the dominant Thevar community in the state, as a threat. While Sasikala is a Kallar, OPS is a Maravar.

Standing strong

It is this background that could be a major advantage for OPS in the caste-conscious society of Tamil Nadu, which is dominated by other backward castes.

Except for the iconic Congress leader K Kamaraj – three-term chief minister of the then Madras State, from 1957 to 1963 – who belonged to the strong Nadar community, all chief ministers of Tamil Nadu have come from castes that are in a minority in the state. While Jayalalithaa is a Brahmin, Karunanidhi is an Isai Vellalar. DMK founder CN Annadurai was a Mudaliar and MGR's family was from Kerala.

So when OPS first became chief minister in 2001, he fulfilled a long- standing desire of the Thevar community to see one of their own in the leadership position. If the AIADMK witnesses a succession struggle in the near future, this community clout could come in handy for OPS.

"Given his seniority, OPS will be the biggest contender for the party leadership whenever the need to elect a new leader arises," Duraisamy said.