Why shoes – and biryani – fly at India's politicians

By , Staff Writer

New Delhi – Throw the bums out? This election Indians are seizing the chance to throw things at them first.

It started with shoes – following in the footsteps of the Iraqi journalist who hurled his soles at President Bush in Baghdad.

A Sikh journalist named Jarnail Singh chucked his sneaker at India's Home Minister earlier this month. Mr. Singh was protesting a recent government decision to absolve a politician – now running for office again – of involvement in the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. Sikhs cheered and began delivering shoes to ruling party leader Sonia Gandhi's house, eventually forcing her to give the controversial candidate the boot.

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Two days later, a retired school teacher lobbed some leather at Naveen Jindal, a Member of Parliament running for reelection.

Then a disgruntled opposition party worker upped the ante with a wooden shoe aimed at his party's prime ministerial candidate, L. K. Advani.

Flying food

Now comes word that a party worker over the weekend flung food – biryani to be exact – at Shantaram Naik, another MP seeking reelection.

These politicians are no loafers when it comes to the artful dodge – none have been hit yet. But they haven't escaped the larger implication: Voters are angry at slippery politicians who flip-flop on their platforms. (OK, I'm done with the puns.)

"It reflects the frustration people are feeling with the politicians," says Anil Bairwal, national coordinator for the Association of Democratic Reforms. "There has been a demand for electoral reform and better representation – and that hasn't happened."

This election goes beyond flying footwear. More constructive interactions are emerging as well.

Do you hear me now?

Until now, Mr. Bairwal says, candidates talked to voters, not the other way around. "This time, the voters are coming out and saying, 'What are you going to do? What did you promise last time? And did you do it?"

So-called "voter-candidate interaction programs" hosted by civic groups like his own have become a prominent feature of this election for the first time, says Bairwal. These forums force candidates to lay out competing platforms and put politicians on record in a way that can be referenced after they take office.

Yet there's no denying that these forums haven't had nearly the same immediate impact as Singh's shoe. In his case, the incident vented decades of "accumulated frustration" among Sikhs – a situation that the government could have worked harder to defuse ahead of time, says sociologist T.K. Oommen.

But, he adds, law enforcement should have thrown the book at the shoe thrower – not let him off. "That emboldens people," says Mr. Oommen. "That's why a couple of instances followed, and in none of these do we have any clear evidence that the due process of law is taking place."

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