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Ramadoss makes headlines

A year ago, who had heard of him? Now the health minister routinely makes headlines.
None | By Sanchita Sharma
UPDATED ON AUG 31, 2006 04:45 AM IST

Just a year ago, most people outside Tamil Nadu referred to the UPA government’s health minister as the man from the South with an unpronounceable name. It took less than a year for Anbumani Ramadoss and his party — with the even more forgettable nomenclature of Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) — to get noticed.

Oblivious to criticism from his opponents, Ramadoss has courted controversy with the zeal of a crusader. First he took on the film and tobacco industries by saying that smoking should be banned on screen. Next, he drew flak for trying to overhaul the highly politicised Medical Council of India. Before that could die down, he was back on TV for coming down heavily against protesting anti-reservation doctors. Not content, he tried to dismiss AIIMS director P Venugopal and accused his administration for hospital mismanagement. He was giving soundbytes again, this time appealing to film actors to stop advertising colas and junk food. And, most recently, he was back on the headlines dismissing CSE’s controversial pesticide-in-cola findings in Parliament as unsubstantiated.

Not bad going for a minister no one had ever heard of.

The back-to-back controversies have transformed the once introverted and reticent doctor from Madras Medical College, Chennai, into a quote-a-minute minister who appears unfazed by public criticism or media scrutiny. “I think I’m slowly becoming a politician,” smiles the 38-year-old minister. “Initially I 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.”

Home-grown brat

A quiet student at Montfort Boys High School in Salem, Ramadoss was the school’s best athlete, football captain and the sports captain. “I was sent to boarding school at six because I was a brat at home. My mom and sisters spoilt me, but my father was very strict and made sure I fell in line,” says the minister who refers to his father—PMK founder S Ramadoss – as ‘my leader’.

If he had his way, Ramadoss junior would have become a hotelier and run restaurants—he says he is a foodie who loves Chinese and Japanese food—but his father would not hear of it. The PMK founder was a doctor and ran a hospital in his village. He wanted his son to help him. “I didn’t have a choice,” says the health minister.

Ramadoss, in fact, practiced medicine for six years, including two in a village, before returning to Chennai to start a green NGO called Pasumai Thyagam in 1997. By then he had married Sowmiya and had two daughters, so they decided to move to the city to be near good schools. Ramadoss has three daughters: Sanjukta, 13, Sanghamitra, 11, and Sanjuthva, 4.

Politics was the next big step, although Ramadoss claims his father was not keen that he make the move. “My father wanted me to do my MD and stick to medicine but my mother supported my decision,” says the minister. “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 in my sleep,” he laughs.

But his father has no regrets and is very proud of his son’s performance as minister. For someone who says he became a minister by default, Ramadoss has indeed done well for himself and his party. “When the PMK—with six seats in the Lok Sabha and one in the Rajya Sabha—tied up with the UPA government, we didn’t know who to send to the Centre for the ministerial berth,” he says. N. T. Shanmugam and E. Ponnuswamy, earlier  PMK ministers at the Centre during the NDA regime, had not done well. “My father sent my name to the Centre on the last day,” says Ramadoss.

The doctor will see you now

Ramadoss is a rare incumbent to actually hold a degree in medicine. This gives him a unique perspective into the working of his ministry and, by extension, the minds of doctors. “Patients are the priority and all decisions keep that in mind. Poor people who are completely dependent on government hospitals, should get treated,” says Ramadoss, who donned a white coat and a stethoscope to examine a bewildered patient at AIIMS at the height of the strike as director Venugopal looked on.

Biggest high? For the record, the National Rural Mission chaired by the Prime Minister, but going by his state of excitement, it seems his acceptance speech in Washington for the American Cancer Society’s Luther L. Terry Award for tobacco control. He can’t stop talking about it. “I got a standing ovation. Thousands stood up and clapped,” he informs you for the nth time.

Between his work as minister, the concurrent controversies, visits to his home state and occasional jaunts abroad, he is left with little time for family or his two favourite sports: badminton and angling. On Monday he celebrates his marriage anniversary and has no plans yet; last year he celebrated with wife and kids at a Delhi hotel. “All I do is eat, work and sleep. We went to Kerala for four days last year but I could not join my family in Kodaikanal this year because of the doctors’ strike. All the peons, drivers and guards in the ministry hate me, they say this man never goes home,” he says.

Peons at his office are more diplomatic and say for the record that they don’t mind the extra hours they have to put in because of their workaholic boss. Thanks to the substantial amount of time they spend beating away the media from the minister’s door, they are savvy enough to not discuss the minister’s behaviour — even off the record.

Going by his flair for antagonising people, the minister should occasionally consider taking his cue from them.

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