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India's Election: Shoe-Thrower and Politicians Miss the Mark

An attack on the Home Minister aimed to highlight treatment of Sikhs, but what really concerns most Indian voters is the economy and jobs, not sectarianism

Of all the things Palaniappan Chidambaram, India's Home Minister, might have expected from his New Delhi press conference on Apr. 7, having a ratty old sneaker flung at him was probably the last. But there it was, flying past his surprised face, freeze-framed and slow-motioned on national television throughout the day, a visual echo of the shoe that U.S. President George W. Bush ducked in Iraq, or the one that barely missed Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao during a visit to Britain.

India's Shoe-gate, the television anchors called it—barely suppressing their smiles as teams of correspondents fanned out across the nation's capital. They went to the police station where the offending shoe-thrower, a Sikh journalist from one of the most widely read Hindi-language newspapers, was being held. They visited his house, where his family wailed at what "must certainly be a misunderstanding." And live shots of Sikh political activists banging their shoes on the pavement captured the ripple effects of India's latest election-related circus act.

Maybe this is what Chidambaram foresaw—public humiliation—when he tried to turn down the job of Home Minister back in December, after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh thrust him into one of the least popular jobs in India. The last Home Minister, Shivraj Patil, resigned in December after terrorists killed nearly 200 people in Mumbai.

Focus on Terror

But the trajectory of Chidambaram's career follows a familiar arc of Indian politics and elections. He was plucked from the plush offices of the Finance Ministry, where he spent his days hobnobbing with CEOs and economists, and dispatched to the Home Ministry, where police officers and anti-terror chiefs help him navigate India's fight against global terrorism and religious violence.

As elections get closer, the economy falls to the wayside, and two issues seem to consume Indian politicians: terrorism and religious infighting. "They don't talk about the measures they are going to take in terms of job creation or infrastructure development, because they just don't feel that these things influence votes," says Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, chairman of Bangalore's Biocon (BION.BO), India's largest biotechnology company. "The focus shifts to trivial—and almost dangerous—vote-catching gimmicks."

With elections due to start next week, Indian political parties are digging up the past. The national conversation is dominated by talk of various terrorist attacks, riots that targeted Muslims in 2002, and others against Sikhs in 1984. The shoe-throwing journalist, Jarnail Singh, had asked Chidambaram about a Congress Party peer, Jagdish Tytler, who recently emerged unscathed from a multidecade investigation for involvement in the 1984 riots that followed then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's assassination by a Sikh bodyguard. Historians and investigators allege that Congress, the ruling party led by Gandhi, stood by and even abetted rioters who killed nearly 2,600 Sikhs on the streets of New Delhi in retaliation. Dissatisfied with Chidambaram's answer about Tytler's right to contest elections, Jarnail Singh took off a shoe and hurled it at the Home Minister.

Party Differences

The shoe having missed, Chidambaram chided the guards to be gentle with Jarnail Singh as he was hustled out the door, and he pleaded with the remaining journalists not to let the incident disrupt the press conference. Later, Chidambaram, a Harvard-educated economist with an eye toward reelection, benevolently forgave the journalist. Although Jarnail Singh was arrested, charges were dropped, and Congress Party spokesperson Tom Vadakkan dismissed it as "an emotional outburst." While it's hard to portray the current Congress leadership as anti-Sikh—Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, after all, is a Sikh himself—the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party grasped the issue with both hands. BJP candidates said the incident captured the anguish of a community wronged by the Congress Party.

Jarnail Singh, a soft-spoken man with a salt-and-pepper beard and a large turban, did not seem too contrite. "My manner of protest may have been wrong," he told the Press Trust of India. "For the last 25 years, this [question about Congress and Tytler's complicity in the riots] has been happening. So what other method was left?"

But even though religious conflict and terrorism are key issues facing India, they are far removed from the daily life of its nearly 1.1 billion inhabitants. For them, what matters immediately are issues like malnutrition, dependable jobs, decent economic growth that filters down to them, and inflation. Of the 712 million registered voters in the country, nearly 550 million live in villages, where the government estimates that nearly 52% of the children under age 5 are malnourished.

Battered by the global economic crisis, India is like a boxer in the fifth round of a prize fight: Dazed and confused, it knows that even if it wins the fight, it will emerge bruised. Exports have been down in each of the past five months, and may end flat for the year. After flirting with double-digit annual growth rates for five years, the economy might barely grow 5% this year, some experts fear. Three rounds of economic stimulus have managed to goad the stock market into a pre-election rally of about 20% this year, but the Bombay Stock Exchange's benchmark index is still hovering at 2004 levels. "You won't hear anything about that at election rallies," says Bibhu Mohapatra, an analyst with the India Development Foundation.

Growth Needed

Business wants to hear the parties' economic plans—how they'll build India's infrastructure and how they'll ensure growth of key sectors of the economy such as outsourcing and manufacturing. With the current government in pre-election mode for the past few months, there has been little discussion of such issues. And many worry that unlike in 2004, corruption hasn't been a major issue for either politicians or voters. "It is a malaise that has affected so many other countries," says Shaw, the biotechnology executive. "And if we don't see progress there, it can derail development in the most terrible way."

What business really wants politicians to understand is that the country needs jobs and growth. "Indians need income, not subsidies," says Mohandas Pai, the human resources chief at Infosys (INFY), India's No. 2 IT company. But still, because so much of the population is illiterate, "political parties try to sway them by appealing to their caste, their religion, or their community," Pai says. "But they forget—what matters most to voters is the economy, their jobs, their livelihood."

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