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Prometheus, who gave the gift of fire to humankind, was punished by the gods by being shackled to a rock. In replay of the Greek myth, the Indian people have been chained to the rock of governmental inertia. The Indian diaspora has shown that wherever people from this part of the subcontinent go, they excel economically, seeming to carry within themselves the fire of initiative and enterprise. So why is it that within our own country we remain such tragic failures, with an estimated 60% of the population said to be on or below the poverty line?
Who has kept the Indian Prometheus chained for all these years? That long-asked question has once again gained topicality against the backdrop of the so-called policy paralysis of which the government has been accused. This is a false accusation. What we are witness to today is much worse than policy paralysis. What India is suffering from - and has suffered for years - is not policy paralysis but ´people paralysis´: the tough, resilient, endlessly innovative people of India have, like Prometheus chained to a rock, been paralysed by the political and bureaucratic gods who rule them.
India - tom-tommed as the world's second fastest-growing economy - is on the threshold of gaining independence from a tyranny more oppressive and deeply entrenched than that of foreign rule: the tyranny of age-old poverty and deprivation. India is at an historic turning point. Or it could be, if it weren't for the paralysis imposed upon the get-up-and-go, on the can-do, will-do self-confidence of its people. With the so-called ´developed´ economies either stagnant or in decline, the field has been made clear for the two emerging Asian contenders - China and India - to take the lead and change the economic map of the world.
Indeed, even as totalitarian China surged ahead in terms of growth rate, several international analysts placed their long-term bets on India which, thanks to its youthful and productive population and its democratic rule of law, was forecast to be the odds-on favourite. Then India hit a roadblock which significantly slowed its growth. Several reasons have been given for this, among them being continuing uncertainties regarding the global economy and the rising prices of oil and other inputs. But the most self-evident reason is that of the inability of the government to carry out much-delayed economic reforms because of the so-called 'compulsions' of coalition politics. All of a sudden, India's democratic advantage over China seems to have become a disastrous disadvantage.
Aside from intransigent allies who oppose everything from FDI in retail to cutting down on fuel subsidies, the government seems to be its own worst enemy by proposing regulations regarding retrospective taxation which not only undermine investor sentiment but sabotage the rule of law and the sanctity of contract which are the bedrock of any real democracy. The truth is that - frequent and noisy elections notwithstanding - India is a democracy more in name than in observance.
Democracy means the progressive empowerment of the people who compose the polity. If this is the yardstick for democracy, India fails the test. For not just this government, but successive regimes ever since Independence have wilfully or otherwise obstructed the empowerment of the Indian people, keeping them chained to poverty, illiteracy and lack of opportunity.
One of the consequences of this is the Maoist menace that holds hostage large tracts of the country. The red revolt mistakes frenzy for freedom. But it should be a warning for those who for far too long have kept bound the Indian Prometheus. When, and how, is the captive to be set free?