MUMBAI, April 27 -- In India, flying footwear is the new hunger strike, overtaking even the trendy Facebook protest as an expression of civil disobedience.
In the latest in a string of four shoe-hurling incidents during the month-long elections underway across India, a 21-year-old computer science student took aim at Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at a sparsely attended rally Sunday in the western city of Ahmedabad.
The shoe, of a yet-to-be-disclosed brand, landed 20 feet from the Oxford-educated economist, who appeared not to notice the tumult. Known for his cerebral, if dry, oratory, Singh, 76, continued to hold forth on economic development, reading from a written speech.
Elsewhere in Ahmedabad on Sunday night, someone lobbed a traditional wooden sandal at prime ministerial candidate L.K. Advani, an 81-year-old leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. It was the second time a sandal of conscience has been launched in Advani's direction this election season.
"Joota: The ultimate nonviolent weapon," a front-page headline in the Mumbai Mirror tabloid read Monday, using the Hindi word for shoe. An editorial cartoon in the paper showed shoes being handed back to hurlers on silk pillows with a new wristwatch inside, "to get around the Election Commission's code against bribing voters," the caption read.
The shoe-as-missile-of-discontent appears to have been inspired by Muntadar al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who lobbed both his shoes at President George W. Bush in December. Zaidi became an international hero. But he also drew a year in prison.
In India, New Delhi journalist Jarnail Singh kicked off the "shoe bite," as the gesture is known here, when he threw a shoe at the home minister during a news conference this month in the capital. He said he was frustrated by the minister's reply to a question about riots in 1984 in which hundreds of Sikhs were killed.
Singh instantly became a national celebrity and was flooded with marriage proposals, boxes of sweets and even money. But he politely refused everything, saying that his shoe-throwing was a "nonprofit exercise."
The gesture resonates with many of India's poor and often illiterate voters, who say they do not have opportunities to question leaders about issues such as corruption, a common problem in this hierarchical society. Politicians rarely deal with the public in unscripted moments, except during elections.
"Shoe-throwing is a real expression of the frustration of the people," said Anil Bairwal of National Election Watch, a watchdog group. "But you have to consider that citizens are at a loss for what to do. For too long, they have hoped that the parties would improve themselves, be progressive, put the right people in the seats and work for the betterment of the people. But none of that has happened."
Throwing one's shoe at someone is seen as a powerful insult across South Asia and much of the Middle East. Indians rarely wear shoes indoors after being out in the often unsanitary streets. Showing the sole of a shoe is also considered an act of disrespect.
So far, no one who has thrown a shoe in India has been jailed. Some pundits here say that is a sign of the health of the world's largest democracy. Others say politically astute leaders realize that arresting the offenders may only make them bigger heroes -- and politicians bigger villains -- in the public's eyes.
The shoe is the weapon of the common man. The shoe can teach corrupt leaders a lesson," read a giant banner with childlike drawings of sneakers that was unfurled Sunday outside a jewelry shop in Mumbai's upscale Bandra West neighborhood.
Kishore Valchand Jain, 56, the shop owner, said he wanted to show support for those Indians who during the elections are increasingly questioning corrupt and incompetent political leaders. India's economy has boomed in recent years, but development has been uneven, leaving vast areas of the country impoverished and lacking in basic services.
"My intention is to say that a shoe thrown by the common man in the general direction of a politician is not going kill a politician or inflict bruises, but it will hurt his ego," the jeweler said. "My banners are my own way of fighting terrorism and corruption. There is so much corruption and wrongdoing in Indian politics. Our small people can't fight it. But we can throw shoes."
The only problem is that actually hitting a politician has proved difficult: Shoes are apparently inefficient projectiles.
Even so, some elected officials are taking precautions. In Gujarat state, Chief Minister Narendra Modi has started putting up volleyball nets around the stage at his rallies to make sure a shoe doesn't hit him.
About time these corrupt politicians got what was coming for them all along!
I didn't vote this election, because I know nothing will improve for the working and peasant class people.