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The shoes are a-raining! And how!

Last updated on: April 23, 2009 14:41 IST

In India, where a huge slice of the population either goes barefoot or can barely manage a cheap, rubber slipper, footwear can mean different things to different people, given the circumstances. To Bharat, his brother Ram's slipper, they called it the paduka then, kept on a throne was the latter's proxy for the former to conduct the affairs the state. Likewise, the padukas of many a saint find venerated places in people's home.

On the other hand, the same footwear can be a metaphor for contempt, a missile to vent anger and when aimed well, can do more than physical damage to the person targeted. It can help revile a person, hurt his ego in public and in short, put him in place. It has, therefore, many uses but if it belongs to the ordinary mortal, then it has a low but essential place in hierarchy of possessions. And if a person is accused of stealing a slipper, it is the most demeaning crime to have been committed.

The Indian expression chappal se maarenge is an admonition that is full of utter contempt of the worst kind expressed at height of one's anger. Nothing can be more demeaning than that for we wear them on the feet to keep them clean from dirt and it is laden with dirt all the time. That is why they are left out at the door in the less anglicised homes. To fling that at a public figure is a gesture of utter disrespect. In other words, when done in public, the message is clear.

Like in 2006, Japalli a village near Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh even announced that to curb the menace of liquor which was actually unsettling families' economics decided to slap anyone who consumed alcohol with the chappal plus a fine of Rs 5,000. The fine would be kept with the wife of the beaten male, but the slipper would be reserved for the alcoholic. That seemingly did the trick. Such is the force of a slipper. It can protect one's feet but enormously hurt an ego.

No one hurls a slipper in public, especially when well-guarded politicians are around and certainly not at them. But the fact that they did on leaders recently indicate a possible surfacing of the anger of the common man at that tribe of the powerful. Imagine, one can't raise a finger at a sarpanch and get away with it in a democratic India, but to take aim at a Union home minister, a sitting MP, and a leader of the opposition aspiring to be a prime minister, is rich or foolhardy.

To my mind therefore, the four instances of shoes and slippers being thrown at politicians have been misunderstood as something out of the ordinary but not what warrants a deep thought. That is a mistake for four instances, in quick order within a span of a few days, in the first half of a single election campaign is extraordinary. That is so because all the four at whom the aim was taken, three were politicians, and the fourth an actor out on a politicians behalf during the campaign.

The actor was Jeetendra who got the pair of slippers was campaigning for a politician-friend this week near Dhule in Maharashtra. There had been earlier instances of chappals had been thrown at Mani Shankar Aiyer's car near Sirkazhi in Tamil Nadu in February this year. It is as if it is quite the thing to do -- see a politician, and then go for the slipper. That is a dangerous trend. It has significant import which we have not understood yet.

The media had underplayed the significance of the 'hurl-a-shoe' pattern now becoming visible, in the sense they are seen as four separate episodes and were bracketed with the incident in Iraq where a journalist threw a shoe at George Bush, the then President of United States of America. Because the person who did the same at Delhi was naturally, being another journalist made for the uncanny resemblance which was emphasised. That was an erroneous interpretation.

But here I read a lot of meaning in these episodes. Mainly because the targeted politicians are not of the garden variety involved in a local brouhaha but of some other, higher plane. One was a suave and always-in-control P Chidambaram. The second target was Naveen Jindal, an industrialist but also a politician. The third was L K Advani, the prime ministerial candidate. The other was a Bollywood hero. It took some gumption to take out one's footwear and hurl it at such worthies.

Admittedly, those who were targeted were the wrong sort, not the bahubalis of the cow-belt or the corrupt ones who make hay because they are politicians. That they were picked only buttresses my argument which is we have missed the wood for the trees, or in this case, the shoe rack waiting to be raided for the shoes that were hurled. For the people's patience is coming to an end -- how close or far from the actual breaking point, I don't know yet -- at the ways of the politicians and marks the frustrating disconnect between the people and the politicians.

This disconnect is becoming all the more glaring with the kind of people who are taking charge of politics and thereby, the institutions of governance. The ilk of the people who get catapulted to power in the elections, not on promises but on the strength of the money they have, the patronage-based networking, the muscle etc has indeed brought enchantment among the population. It is perhaps not without reason that the middle classes find themselves out of sync and don't even go to vote.

Wisely, Chidambaram let the matter be despite the personal discomfiture of the event, live on television. The man was forgiven. The shift to the Sikh anger took the attention away from him. In the other two instances, we do not know the exact nature of the consequences. And if these worthies have been forgiving I half suspect it was because it was better PR to do so and mitigate the impact of such an adverse incident. Politicians as a class are not the forgiving types.

Of course the shoe hurled at Chidambaram forced the Congress to wake up to the fact that it was suicidal to ignore the anguish of the Sikh community for the 1984 massacre but that is an one-off gain made because of an impetuous action of a journalist. The other two instances, I think, help shape a trend to which the politicians had better get wise to. If they don't, it would be only at their peril. Who knows, when the anger among the people wells up, worse things could follow.

Come think of it, the political class is not a stranger to the art of flinging the footwear. To them the slipper was another missile just like chairs and microphones were -- anything handy or what adorned their feet. They have done so within the confines of the stately legislative bodies, especially in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Orissa. One does not have a list but there scarcely would be a legislative assembly which has not witnessed such incidents. In one case, as in Maharashtra, Babarao Dakhne, who once hurled a slipper at the chair, later became a deputy speaker and he was ordained by his position to protect the dignity of the House.

Mahesh Vijapurkar is a retired deputy editor of The Hindu.

Mahesh Vijapurkar