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Why PM is keeping mum on Venugopal's ouster

Sources say Manmohan and Sonia are upset with the AIIMS director over the handling of the quota stir.

india Updated: Jul 07, 2006 18:43 IST

Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss may have earned the wrath of the medical community with his sacking of one of India's best heart surgeons as head of the country's prestigious AIIMS hospital, but the powers that be were unhappy with his handling of the medicos' strike over the quotas issue.

Congress leaders swear that both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and party president Sonia Gandhi were "very upset" over All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) director P Venugopal's perceived attempts to encourage the 14-day strike over a month ago against caste-based quotas in institutions of higher education.

"Both leaders were disappointed that Venugopal did not do anything to end the strike despite repeated pleas and assurances from the government," a Congress leader said on condition of anonymity. "Many in the government feel that Venugopal was solely responsible for the strike."

Political analysts and party sources insist that Manmohan Singh was maintaining silence over the ouster of Venguopal from the AIIMS due to his unwillingness to interfere in a cabinet minister's decision.

In this particular case, any veto by Manmohan Singh would have also led to taking on an ally, the PMK, which while holding just six seats in parliament has a close relationship with Tamil Nadu's ruling party DMK.

The PMK draws its main strength from the Vanniyar community, which accounts for some 20 per cent of Tamil Nadu's 60 million people and populates mainly the state's northern belt.

"It is true that the PMK has a considerable hold over the Vanniyars. But I don't think it was his political clout that helped him to dismiss Venugopal," senior Congress leader Era Anbarasu said.

"I believe the Congress and the government feel that he (Ramadoss) took the right decision," Anbarasu said.

Political analysts, however, did ascribe coalition pressures as one of the key reasons the prime minister has remained silent, publicly at least, in the battle between Ramadoss and Venugopal, leading to the latter's unceremonious sacking on Wednesday.

A political observer N Bhaskara Rao said, "The prime minister seems to be thinking: 'Why should I burn my fingers? Let the Supreme Court decide.'

"After Thursday's developments (when the DMK threatened to pull out of government over New Delhi's decision to offload its shares in two state-owned companies), he is not likely to take any steps that may disturb the United Progressive Alliance (UPA)," Rao said. "It's petty politics against national interest."

But Ramadoss is indeed politically well connected.

Besides being the son of doctor-turned-PMK founder S Ramadoss, who shares a good rapport with DMK chief and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi, his father-in-law M Krishnaswami is the state Congress president.

Congress sources pointed out that it was Karunanidhi's close ties with Sonia Gandhi that helped Krishnaswami bag the post. Anbumani Ramadoss' wife Sowmiya, a good orator, heads the women's wing of PMK.

According to political sources, the Congress is in no mood to rub the PMK the wrong way as sections of the party still nurse dreams of mending their fences one day with former Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalitha's AIADMK, using the PMK as a go between.

"These Congress leaders feel that it is the AIADMK, PMK, MDMK and a few smaller parties that are their natural allies in Tamil Nadu, and not the DMK," said one Congress leader.

"So why should the Congress leadership support a (hospital) official at the cost of a natural ally?"

The PMK's influence over voters in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, however, is a matter of debate. The PMK contested 31 seats and won just 17 during the May elections to the 234-member Tamil Nadu assembly, that too with help from the DMK and the Congress.

Until the PMK emerged as a political force in Tamil Nadu, the Congress used to command considerable Vanniyar votes. Although the PMK drew a blank in the 1989 Lok Sabha elections, it won one seat in 1991 and the number went up to four in 1996.

It won the same number of seats in 1998, when it forged an alliance with the AIADMK, and five seats in the 1999 Lok Sabha poll. In 2004, this increased to six. The PMK has, however, fared poorly in Pondicherry, which remains a Congress bastion despite the considerable numerical strength of the Vanniyar community.