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Doctor on duty

The health minister has yet to win his anti-tobacco battle, but he has finally managed to unseat his bete noire, AIIMS director P Venugopal, writes Sanchita Sharma.

delhi Updated: Dec 01, 2007 08:39 IST
Sanchita Sharma

When he became health minister in the summer of 2004, most people outside Tamil Nadu referred to Dr Anbumani Ramadoss as the newbie from the south who belonged to the party with the unpronounceable name of Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK).

Over the next three years, Ramadoss proved to be the dark horse with an uncanny knack of emerging the winner in every situation he found himself in.

He is easily the most controversial minister in the UPA government. He’s the man who first took on both film and tobacco industries by banning smoking on screen and public places. Next, he unsuccessfully — his only failure — tried to overhaul the Medical Council of India that controls medical education in the country. He’s still at it.

He then offended medical students and doctors across the country by proposing a compulsory one-year rural posting for all MBBS students, which will push up the duration of their course to six-and-a-half years. More recently, he publicly accused four unnamed chief ministers and 150 MPs of opposing the Tobacco Control Act because they were being paid off by the tobacco industry.

AIIMS controversy

That’s not the end of it. Ramadoss has now got Parliament approval and presidential assent for the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) and Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER) Bill 2007, which proposes a five-year term for the director or until he attains the age of 65, whichever is earlier.

The Bill, say his critics, specifically targets the health minister’s pet hate, 66-year-old cardiac surgeon P Venugopal, who was on Friday removed as director of AIIMS through a curtly worded fax. He earned Ramadoss’ ire because he resisted the ministry’s attempt to interfere in the functioning of the hospital. Ramadoss’ fans — yes, he has some even at AIIMS — say it is not personal and Venugopal had to go because his appointment was illegal and done only because he was close to the NDA government.

“He’s a true politician. Despite the public criticism and the media scrutiny, it’s amazing how he turns everything to his advantage and emerges the winner, each time,” says a senior faculty member at AIIMS.

Fated for politics

The minister says politics was forced on him. “I think I’m slowly becoming a politician. I’m a professional and not a politician and initially found it very difficult to get into the groove in Delhi. It’s only now that I have started coming out of my shell because of the exposure,” says the 39-year-old minister, who did his MBBS from Madras Medical College, Chennai.

His friends from Tamil Nadu express surprise at his transformation from a quiet student at Montfort Boys High School in Salem to the quote-a-minute minister completely at ease in media glare. Everyone expected him to join politics. After all, he was the son of PMK founder S Ramadoss — Anbumani still refers to his father as “my leader” — but few expected him to get catapulted into the national limelight at the age of 36.

Politics was the next big step, something Ramadoss claims his father was not keen on at all. “My father wanted me to do my MD and stick to medicine but my mother supported my decision. He grudgingly gave in,” says Ramadoss. “I still remember when I made my first public speech: my hands and feet felt clammy, my throat went dry and I was shaking. Now I can make speeches while sleepwalking,” he laughs.

For someone who says he became a minister by default, Ramadoss has done well for himself and his party. “When the PMK — with six seats in Lok Sabha and one in Rajya Sabha — tied up with the UPA government, we didn’t know whom to send to the Centre for the ministerial berth. N. T Shanmugam and E Ponnuswamy, who were PMK ministers at the Centre during the NDA regime, had not done well and given the party a bad name. Partymen asked my father to give me a chance, and he sent my name to the Centre on the last day,” says Ramadoss.

Critics say he has done well for himself because of the compulsions of coalition politics. “He could never have got away with doing whatever he wants if he was from the Congress party. With the PMK winning 18 seats in the Tamil Nadu assembly last year, Ramadoss has emerged stronger and keeps pushing the Centre to do as he wants,” says an AIIMS resident doctor who obviously has no love lost for Ramadoss.

Going by his flair for antagonising people, his work as minister, visits to his home state and occasional jaunts abroad, he has little free time.

When he does find some, he spends it at home with wife Sowmiya and three daughters. “I love badminton and fishing, but I have no time now. It’s all work and no play now, I’ve become the proverbial dull boy,” he says.

Oblivious to the brickbats and the bouquets, however, he continues to do things more seasoned politicians would fear to consider.