Shoes fly as tempers rise in Indian campaign set for Thursday

07 May 2009
In the media
Published at
M&C
Quotes Achin Vanaik
New Delhi - India's election season has seen flying footwear and ducking candidates, prompting some skittish politicians to install safety nets at rallies and disgruntled villagers to take target practice classes to improve their shoe-throwing skills. After the shoe attacks on former US president George W Bush in Iraq and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Britain, footwear has become a preferred method of protest during the ongoing, monthlong Indian elections. As many as five 'shoe-missiles' aimed at politicians have flown in less than a month. The country's top political leaders - including prime ministerial candidates Manmohan Singh, the incumbent from the United Progressive Alliance, and LK Advani from the main opposition National Democratic Alliance - have been targeted. However, no politician has so far been hit in the so-called shoecide attacks. The missiles missed their marks, and the assailants were subsequently forgiven by the embarrassed leaders. In India, like other Asian societies, pointing the sole of a shoe at someone is regarded as disrespectful, and hurling footwear is considered a supreme insult. It all began on April 7 when a Sikh journalist, Jarnail Singh, flung his sneaker at Interior Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram during a press conference in New Delhi. The reporter had exchanged heated words with the minister over why a lawmaker accused in 1984 anti-Sikh riots in which 3,000 people were killed was cleared of charges and was running in the five-phase, staggered elections, which began April 16 and run through May 13. Jarnail Singh became a national celebrity, and the footwear missile had its intended effect: The tainted politician was withdrawn from the electoral race. Days later, a retired schoolteacher threw a shoe at Indian National Congress party lawmaker Naveen Jindal during an election rally. Arrested but subsequently released on bail, shoe thrower Rajpal Saharan said he was galled at false promises from politicians at a time when his son had lost his job. Footwear was also lobbed at 81-year-old Advani by a former party worker and a Hindu holy man on separate occasions. While the activist was angry at being removed from the party, the holy man was bitter that Advani had done nothing to stop the slaughter of cattle, which are sacred animals for Hindus. A short time later, Premier Singh became the fourth politician to be targeted even though the sneaker landed far short at a rally in the western city of Ahmedabad. 'How long will you politicians fool us?' computer-engineering student Hitesh Chauhan shouted before hurling the shoe. The prime minister asked the police not to press charges as worried political parties condemned the trend. But their censure has hardly deterred the shoe-throwing brigade. Bollywood actor Jeetendra and the chief minister of the southern state of Karnataka, BS Yeddyurappa, have become the latest targets of such attacks. After the flurry of shoe tossings, party workers have been asked to remove shoes at meetings, and security guards have become extra cautious, keeping a close eye on reporters at press conferences, local media reported. Authorities in the western state of Gujarat went so far as to install a net to catch airborne shoes at public rallies at which Chief Minister Narendra Modi appeared. Television reports recently showed target practice classes for aspiring shoe throwers after all the missiles had missed their targets. A hit list of Indian politicians can be found at the www.jutamaro.com website, whose name means 'hurl the shoe.' It was launched so Indians could throw virtual shoes at leaders they dislike. The attacks are being interpreted as a sign of increasing annoyance over inept leaders and speak of people's desperation for good governance. '[The attacks] are a symbol of the people's anger, disgust and revulsion against the misrule by our polity,' an editorial in the Central Chronicle newspaper observed. 'More important, it exposes the wide chasm between the common man and our politicians.' 'Although it might be a way of getting publicity for their personal reasons or perhaps collective causes, I'd support any healthy form of protest that may turn the focus on larger issues,' political analyst Achin Vanaik said. Indian leaders should take a cue since these incidents hold ominous portents for Indian democracy, columnist Mahesh Vijapurkar wrote. 'If they don't, it would be only at their peril,' Vijapurkar said. 'Who knows, when the anger among the people wells up, worse things could follow.' © Deutche Presse Agentur www.monstersandcritics.com