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OF SONIA AND MARTA
- In search of the ideal female politician

It will always be fashionable to moan about the less-than-proportionate share of women in prized jobs. There was a time when the moans extended to politics as well. Even now there is a bill in limbo to give women a third of Parliament seats on a platter. But we have had our fill of women chief ministers. The shorn Uma Bharti, illiterate Rabri Devi, thorny Mayavati and disproportionately wealthy Jayalalithaa — they could match any male politician; together they would cure the shrillest feminist of his longing for women.

But despite such repeated lessons, I remain well disposed towards Sonia. Her Hindi is no patch on Vajpayee’s, but she looks better. Her contralto is not as perfect as Advani’s, but she is less pedestrian. She cannot match Pramod’s mischievous grin, but she is more genuine. She does not have Arun Jaitley’s brains, but she does not have his cold, pitiless eyes either. She is not as pretty as Murli Manohar Joshi, but she is not so obsessed with trivia. I would have worried that she is Indira’s daughter-in-law. But I really cannot imagine her acquiring Indira’s paranoia or ruthlessness. On the whole, she is worth taking a bet on — if one thinks the Congress has a chance of winning.

But even with her around, the thought of women in politics does not quite cheer me up. I thought maybe I was not casting my eye around far enough. So I roamed the world, and lighted upon a political lady that pleased my eyes. Her name happens to be Marta Sahagún de Fox. It may sound strangely hybrid; but that is how things are in the Americas.

Like Sonia, Marta is still to get into power. And like Sonia, she has tasted power at the highest. For she is 53, the wife of President Vicente Fox of Mexico, who came to power in 2000, riding just as high a wave of hope as Rajiv Gandhi did in 1983. Rajiv married Sonia almost when they were kids. The relationship of Marta and Vicente is more mature; they got married only in 2001. But their courtship goes back further.

President Vicente Fox was born in 1942, second of nine children, and grew up on a ranch in Guanajuato province; tall and handsome, he likes to dress up like a ranchero and ride horses. He wears cowboy boots, and a cowboy belt with a huge buckle bearing his own name. George Bush and he visit each other on their respective ranches.

He left the ranch and went to university in Mexico. Then at 22, he joined Coca-Cola as a despatcher; that gave him a chance to truck around the whole country. He must have sold a lot of Coke, for twenty years later he became the chief of Coca-Cola in Mexico. Then the political bug bit him. In 1988, he became a member of parliament. In 1991, he was elected governor of Guanajuato. He owns a 1,220-acre ranch, on which he raises ostriches amongst other animals.

Marta was married at 17 in the town of Celaya in Guanajuato. She brought up three children from her marriage, and helped her husband build up a veterinary drug business. She also went to Dublin in Ireland and learnt the English of that place, and then taught it back in Celaya. Finally she entered politics, and fought elections to become Celaya’s mayor. She was defeated; but she caught the eye of Vicente Fox. He made her his election manager and won governorship for the second time in 1995.

The romance took some time to ferment. Finally, Marta married Vicente on July 2, 2001, the first anniversary of his becoming president. Actually, both could be called bigamists, for they contracted a civil marriage without annulling their earlier, Catholic marriages. It was also scandalous, for Vicente Fox posed as a devout Catholic during his campaign for presidency, and used a banner of the Virgin of Guadeloupe, Mexico’s most sacred saint, in his election campaign. So the civil marriage, celebrated in style at Los Piños, the president’s palace, cast a shadow on his devout image. That might have caused a problem with the church. But Marta tackled it with characteristic verve. She sent a message that she was coming to Rome for a honeymoon, and wanted an audience with the Pope. With such a large flock in Mexico, the Pope could not afford to snub the president’s wife; she got an audience.

Señora Marta, as she is now known, started a charity called Fundacão Vamos Mexico (“Let’s go, Mexico” Foundation) soon after coming to power — I mean, marrying the president. From this foundation, she gives villagers free bicycles, and tool sets for rural midwives. She is accused of having collected far more money than the foundation has spent, and of accumulating a war chest for her election as the next president of Mexico.

If she does win, she will have a full plate, especially if she wants to fulfil her oft-given promise of raising Mexicans out of their poverty. For in 1993, Mexico became a member of the North American Free Trade Area, which has brought Mexico tangible benefits but also reduced its freedom of man- ouevre. Its GDP doubled in the ensuing ten years, income per head increased by a quarter to $4,000 a year. Its exports tripled from $52 billion to $161 billion. The share of oil in exports fell from 18 per cent to 9 per cent; along the border with the United States of America mushroomed factories, called maquiladoras, which import materials from the US and send back products processed with cheap Mexican labour. At the peak, they employed 1.3 million workers. Mexico, with a tenth of India’s population, has received an average of $10 billion of foreign investment — almost three times what India got. When the Mexican government defaulted on foreign debt in 1994, the US got its daughter institutions to pour $40 billion into it. Mexico was so beguiled by NAFTA that it went and signed 30 such agreements.

Yet, popular support for NAFTA in Mexico fell from 68 per cent to 45 per cent. In the ten years, China displaced Mexico as America’s biggest supplier of manufactured goods, without any trade agreement. The Chinese average wage is only a third of the Mexican; electricity costs half as much across the border in the US. Almost a quarter of the maquiladoras have closed down in the past three years as a result of Chinese competition. Bombardier, the Canadian plane-maker which employs 2,000 workers in Mexico, is looking at India with its vast pool of engineers.

As the US opened its vast market to Mexican manufactures, Mexico opened up to subsidized American farm products. As maquiladoras created 1.3 million jobs (a quarter of which have disappeared in the past three years), 1.3 million Mexican farm-workers lost jobs. Many of them smuggled themselves across the border into the US; some 2.5 million illegal migrants went across.

Mexico shows that a country cannot benefit from globalization unless it makes its administration and infrastructure efficient. Marta’s talk of war against poverty may win her the election, but will it raise Mexico’s growth rate from the current 1.5 per cent' I think I will have to resume my search for the ideal female politician.

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