He was derisively called a 'benami' by his rivals and taunted on social media and messaging apps. But on Monday, Tamil Nadu chief minister O Panneerselvam was beaming as he reached Poes Garden, his leader Jayalalithaa's residence in Chennai.
Panneerselvam and his ministers turned up shortly after Jayalalithaa and three other accused were acquitted by the Karnataka high court in a disproportionate assets case. Outside her residence , spontaneous celebrations were on, with firecrackers being burst, sweets distributed and cadre dancing on the streets.
Panneer is expected to step down as the chief minister in the next few days, paving the way for Jaya to take over .
"Of course she will be chief minister," said Rabi Bernard, AIADMK Rajya Sabha MP and spokesperson. "Amma and the party will decide when she will assume charge."
Jaya need not be a sitting MLA to become CM but will have to win a bypoll within six months in order to stay in the post.
Loyalist Panneer though would be the happiest AIADMK man at present. In Jayalalithaa's absence he led the cabinet in name only, treading softly and careful not to be seen or heard, unless when singing paeans to his leader. He was unfazed even when the state machinery slipped into pause mode.
"At the moment, only some ministers are working a little," said C Lakshmanan, professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies. "The state assembly is not functioning, files are not moving, decisions are not being made because they are waiting for her to take a decision. But each and every single thing cannot go to her. Secretaries and bureaucrats cannot meet Jayalalithaa formally. So that is affecting decision-making at present."
"No one has any direction, including the chief minister," said DMK spokesperson TKS Elangovan. "They do not know what to do, how to perform, whether something they do on their own will be appreciated or accepted by Jayalalithaa. So they are afraid of doing anything. The government machinery is at a complete standstill."
Panneer will now faithfully bow out and keep his finance portfolio, leaving the top job to his leader.
Projects which have been completed, such as the Metro Rail, await Jayalalithaa's return for inauguration. The much-touted Global Investors Meet has been postponed twice in a year and is now scheduled for September.
"The bureaucracy is running the state," political analyst Gnani Sankaran said. " The government is working although politicians are not visible. There is still corruption which means governance is going on as usual."
Jayalalithaa was forced to step down as chief minister in September 2014 after being found guilty of possessing wealth to the tune of Rs 58 crores that was disproportionate to her known sources of income.
She was given a four-year jail term and a fine of Rs 100 crore, which has now been overturned on appeal.
(Sandhya Ravishankar is an independent journalist based in Chennai. She tweets as @sandhyaravishan.)