Exactly three years ago, amid the din of the Lok Sabha polls, a widowed young mother trudged under the blazing sun in coastal Tamil Nadu, her newborn in her arms. The sight evoked sympathy and memories of her slain husband, Venkatesa Pannaiyar, listed as a ‘don’ in police files.
Hailing from a well-off Nadar family from Tuticorin district, Pannaiyar was wanted in more than 20 cases, including extortion and holding of kangaroo courts known as Kattu Panchayat. His widow, Radhika Selvi, 31, would go on to win the Tiruchendur Lok Sabha seat for the DMK on the plank of getting even with Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK, for the September 2003 encounter in Chennai in which her husband was killed.
Selvi’s victory transported her to the new world of politics and Parliament. But, it was not until Dayanidhi Maran’s resignation as Union IT and Communication Minister earlier this month that another window opened up for Selvi: she was sworn in as a Union minister of state in the Manmohan Singh government on May 18.
Selvi moved into her new office in the Home Ministry immediately after being sworn in — as directed by Karunanidhi. Her son, Rakshan, now three years old, accompanied Selvi to her new office, and was photographed sitting on her lap. Her voice choked, as she expressed her thanks: “I am grateful to Kalaignar (Karunanidhi) and Dalapathi (Karunanidhi’s son MK Stalin) for this opportunity.”
Flashback, March 9, 2004: Selvi is introduced as DMK’s Tiruchendur candidate at a Chennai public meeting. She delivers her son the next morning. A week later she is back in Tuticorin, and in another 10 days, she starts campaigning…
“Who told you my husband was a don?” asks Selvi. “Do you think my leader (Karunanidhi) would’ve made me a minister if I was a don’s wife? It is a campaign against me, only in north India.” Her proud parents, Mohan Arumugam and Thangapushpam, and siblings — two sisters and a brother — nod in approval.
Selvi was pregnant when her husband was shot dead, and joined the DMK vowing to avenge the killing. Overnight, she became a metaphor of caste politics. Since she has always been close to Karunanidhi’s daughter Kanimozhi, many party leaders feel it might have been the reason for the DMK chief’s naming her as an option to fill Maran’s vacancy. Also, the Nadars were upset all along that none of the MPs from southern districts were inducted in the Manmohan Singh ministry.
Selvi says she never thought she would take the plunge into public life. A graduate in English Literature from Chennai’s Bharathi Arts College, she married Panniyar in September 2001 — six years after their marriage was fixed. She has a post-graduate degree too.
Right now, filmmaker Sanjay Ram is producing a film on Pannaiyar’s life, Moolakkarai Pannaiyar, with the approval of Selvi’s brother-in-law, Subash Pannaiyar. Selvi isn’t sure if the film will be a true portrayal of her husband, and not a police version of his background.