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Differential calculus

columns Updated: Nov 20, 2011 11:50 IST
Karan Thapar
Karan Thapar
Hindustan Times
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I did not realise that two people competing for the same job would be so different. Perhaps foolishly, I had assumed their shared ambition would lend them a common colour. But last week, when I met Christine Lagarde, the French finance minister, and Agustin Carstens, the governor of the Bank of Mexico, I discovered the enormity of my mistake.

Though they both want to be the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), they’re as different as two people could possibly be. Lagarde is tall, elegant, consciously well-dressed and exquisitely groomed — and well aware of it. The way she sits on a chair, with her legs joined from the knees to the ankles and pushed to one side, discretely drawing attention to her expensive shoes, captures her striking combination of femininity, class and power.

Carstens, on the other hand, is fat, with no visible neck, dressed in a comfortable but not eye-catching suit and a bright green tie that attracts too much attention. Like all men of his size, he fills the entire sofa and sits with his uncrossed legs planted heavily on the floor. His shoes are well-worn and not stylish.

But this first impression is quickly reversed once they start talking. Lagarde is smooth, even a little glib. Always unruffled but like all politicians she never quite answers the question and often gives herself time by beginning at a tangent. You get the feeling she is an accomplished diplomat.

Carstens answers with a winning candour. His replies are direct and you sense he’s got the point of your question as soon as it’s asked. There’s no prevarication and no attempt to buy time with a little waffling. The man is confident of himself, knows what he’s talking about and conscious that his academic qualifications and 30-year career justifies his claim to the managing directorship.

When we talked about how, if they got the top job, they would handle the IMF, the differences became not just stark but striking. Lagarde relied on a few well-rehearsed but rather general points. I specifically asked if not being an economist would be a handicap and she replied by saying if it had not been a constraint for her as finance minister of France, she saw no reason why it would as managing director of the IMF. Although she answered everything I asked, she did not push to reveal her vision for the IMF.

Carstens not only has one, which is detailed and well thought-out, but quickly grabbed an opportunity to share it. As he held forth, it was apparent he was both an intelligent economist and a man who understands the IMF and the problems of international finance intimately. The more he spoke, the more impressive was his command of the subject — and he knew it! There is, of course, a little twist to this tale of two competitors. I stumbled on it afterwards when I started to reflect on their personalities. The impression they leave behind is telling in its difference. I recall Lagarde with a certain admiration but, I suspect, it’s how a pleb would look upon a princess. I remember Carstens with fondness, someone I could grow to like and who might be fun to spend an evening with.

The job, I feel sure, will go to Christine Lagarde. The power of France will ensure that. But Agustin Carstens is more deserving and better qualified. Alas, Mexico is not a powerful country.

The views expressed by the author are personal.