Ex-Tamil Nadu chief picks key loyalist as successor

Jailed former chief minister of Tamil Nadu J. Jayalalithaa has chosen her key loyalist, Mr O. Panneerselvam, to succeed her as state chief a day after she was convicted of graft and barred from holding a government post.

Mr Panneerselvam, the state's finance minister, was officially chosen at a party meeting yesterday after consultations with Jayalalithaa, 66, who still has an iron grip on her party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). He is likely to be sworn in today.

He is seen to have proven his loyalty when he took over the post of chief minister for seven months in 2001 to 2002, when the AIADMK chief was convicted in another graft case that was later dismissed.

Jayalalithaa also held consultations with her legal team, which is expected to file her bail application today, a party member said.

Sporadic incidents of violence continued to break out in Tamil Nadu where anger was still running high among AIADMK supporters. A bus was torched in one area.

Jayalalithaa, a popular southern leader, was convicted of graft and sentenced to four years' jail, apart from a 1 billion rupee (S$20.8 million) fine, for amassing 660.5 million rupees in silver, saris, gold, cash and properties during her first term as chief minister between 1991 and 1996.

The verdict came at a time when she was flying high after her party won 37 seats in the May general election, emerging as the third-largest party in Parliament.

Within Tamil Nadu, her popularity is unchallenged following a series of populist schemes like the Amma canteen, which provides clean and wholesome cooked food at very low prices for the poor.

AIADMK party officials maintained that Jayalalithaa, popularly known as Amma, meaning "mother", would overcome the political setback. "For sure Amma will rise back like the phoenix. This is not new; she has always been a fighter," said Mr Aspire Swaminathan, a member of the AIADMK.

The verdict has hit Jayalalithaa hard as the Supreme Court in a landmark ruling last year barred convicted politicians from holding office and contesting elections for a minimum of six years, depending on the length of imprisonment.

Jayalalithaa cannot contest elections for 10 years unless she gets her conviction stayed by a higher court or wins an appeal.

Political analysts said that while she would remain an important figure in politics in Tamil Nadu, she was now vulnerable. "Smaller political parties could make a foray. And the (ruling Bharatiya Janata Party) has been desperate to make inroads in the south," said sociologist Shiv Vishvanathan.

The verdict is also seen as a victory for the nation's anti-graft drive. The Hindu newspaper, in a front-page editorial, said: "It is commendable that the prosecution and the judges involved in this case stood up to the pressures and upheld the principles of justice and fairness."

Meanwhile, the state of Maharashtra was put under President's Rule when its chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, who is from the Congress party, resigned after an alliance between the ruling Congress and Nationalist Congress Party broke down ahead of state polls.

This article was first published on Sep 29, 2014.
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