With his sensational late-night charge that he had been forced to resign, the Tamil Nadu care-taker Chief Minister O Panneerselvam (OPS) has gone thermonuclear against an ambitious VK Sasikala who was all set to take control of the state government. She and her family will be certainly be stopped in their tracks because an affable OPS couldn’t have gone for the killer strike without a clear strategy and backing from the Centre.

It may not lead to an immediate split in the AIADMK because of the Anti-Defection Law, and OPS may not immediately get enough numbers to tick Sasikala off, but his timely explosion and its aftermath will be good enough to block her temporarily and allow the Governor to use his discretion that will let him buy time.

He could certainly tell the Governor that he had been threatened to submit his resignation and that he still has the support of the MLAs, based on which the latter can ask him to prove his majority in the assembly even if Sasikala stakes her claim. If the Governor wants to use his discretion and appear fair, he can take it as Sasikala’s claim versus OPS’ claim and ask them to prove their majority in the assembly. In such a situation, OPS can continue to be the Chief Minister at least till the end of next week.

By then, the Supreme Court is likely to pronounce its verdict in the crucial disproportionate assets (DA) case in which Sasikala is a co-accused. If the verdict goes against her, that will be the end of her story. She and her family, that is reportedly running the show now, will come up with a proxy candidate, but many other possibilities also might open up for OPS because that’s how dynamic Indian politics is. The balance of power will change everything.

This is the most likely strategy OPS has in mind because he clearly couldn’t have made this drastic move without the support of the Centre. That the Governor chose to keep away from Tamil Nadu when Sasikala wanted to be sworn in was the first indication that the Centre wasn’t happy and somehow wanted to frustrate her design. His absence also gave OPS the time to plan and execute his intervention. The game has completely changed in a day and now may not go at all the way Sasikala and her family have planned.

More than stopping Sasikala, the biggest breakthrough OPS has achieved on Tuesday night was striking a cord with the public and emerge as an alternative leader who could fill the vacuum Jayalalithaa had left behind. Although his visit to the Marina beach, the dramatic meditation at Jaya’s memorial, and the subsequent bombshell of a press meet happened at short notice, people swelled around him spontaneously. They even followed him all the way to his house on Greenways Road and stayed put hailing him. He also started trending immediately as a hero on social media. The momentum was similar to that of the popular uprising that the state witnessed a couple of weeks back in support of Jallikkattu.

What OPS has broken open is a possibility that people have been waiting for ever since Jayalalithaa died. He has seized the opportunity and has created a role for himself so that people can rally around him. They haven’t been favourable to Sasikala’s quest for power at all. Other than the MLAs and the first tier of the party leadership, there has been hardly any visible support for her. In fact, her popular support is practically nil. With OPS’s disclosure that it was him that Jaya had in mind as her successor and that Sasikala tried to dislodge him through a sinister plot, he gave credence to the conspiracy theories that have been doing the rounds.

In the public eye, his word will have more credibility than Sasikala’s because of many reasons. One, Jaya had never held her up as her heir or hinted at any political role for her publicly other than allowing her to help with the party affairs at home. She had always maintained that Sasikala was somebody that took care of her like her mother would have; two, she had been thrown out of Jaya’s household twice on suspicions of treachery; and three, her family had been banished by Jaya and some of the men, who are now playing the backroom games, had been even put in jail.

In comparison, OPS had always been the chosen one for Jaya. He was her loyal standby on two occasions when she had to step aside for legal reasons and she had spoken about him in glowing terms. And the more Sasikala and her supporters slam him, the bigger he will get.

Although in a pushback to OPS’s attack Sasikala has claimed that all the MLAs are with her and the party faces no problem, Panneerselvam too has his share of supporters in the party. Some of them, including Rajya Sabha member Dr Maithreyan, who was among the first to speak up for Sasikala’s leadership, visited him after his Marina show. He will certainly get some support initially and if the odds against Sasikala stack up, particularly if the SC verdict is adverse, more and more people might switch loyalty.

Even if Sasikala survives this unexpected attack, and the DA case, the road ahead for her will be really hard. She hardly has any public support, and the presence of her family, that was widely held responsible for Jaya’s rout after her first term in 1996, would alienate people further. OPS’s disclosure would make her and her family appear more baleful and diminish her chances of winning an election even from a Thevar dominated southern constituency if she indeed gets to the stage of a favourable vote of confidence in the assembly. OPS is also a Thevar and hence can play back the caste card.

OPS has vowed to fight back even if he is all alone. If the cadre and the ranks are with him, it will be bad news indeed for Sasikala, because the public opinion has overwhelmingly begun to swing in his favour. Usually public and cadre sentiments considerably overlap.

The stage is also set for a situation similar to the one after MGR’s death in 1987 when his wife VN Janaki had the support of the majority of the AIADMK MLAs. When she sought the confidence vote in the assembly a month later, in 1988, Jaya’s faction with a strength of 33 MLAs abstained and the then speaker PH Pandian disqualified them, in addition to the 10 DMK MLAs he had disqualified in 1986. With the altered numbers, Janaki easily won the confidence vote, but Rajiv Gandhi dismissed her citing the disorder in the assembly. In the subsequent election, the DMK won, but that too was dismissed, and in 1991, Jaya came to power for the first time, primarily on the sympathy wave created by the assassination of Rajiv. Probably, OPS has been inspired by his mentor’s baptism by fire. If the then Prime Minister Rajiv was favourable to Jaya, the present Prime Minister Narendra Modi is favourable to OPS. Media reports indicate that Modi seems to like him.

As in 1988, one leader has to vanquish the other. Will the history repeat itself? Will the Centre and the BJP take a leaf out of the Congress’s book? Although less significant, the same PH Pandian who ensured Janaki’s victory in 1988, has thrown his weight behind OPS this time. He too can provide valuable counsel.

Anyway, the highlight of the story is this: Tamil Nadu has a new, unusual political star – OPS, and people have already started loving him. In the coming days, a lot of movies stars and public figures will hail him as their favourite. That’s how public sentiments work in Tamil Nadu.