The Hindu (Business Line)

Both an Eskimo in the Arctic and an African living near the Equator have the same body temperature in spite of the vast difference in their environment. Likewise, a top athlete and a couch potato. This constancy across environments, and across personal habits, is due to a process known as negative feedback. Negative feedback is universal in nature.

In the ideal negative feedback system, the feedback element should be free from interference so that it can assess performance without fear. Similarly, the error detector too should be independent and capable of giving judgement without fear or favour. The same holds for the executive too; it should have the freedom to function autonomously.

For eight hundred years, from the time of the Magna Carta, legislators have fought for outright powers to decide how much to tax and in what way it should be collected and how that money should be spent. That authority is now sacrosanct and nobody questions it — except when it goes against the Constitution. Unfortunately, legislators decide what the Constitution should be. Hence, that check too is limited.

As legislators have the authority to decide what to tax, how to tax as well as how the tax money should be spent, it is they who decide what salaries the judges, the executive and the feedback authority should get, even who should be promoted and where they should be posted.


Thus, legislators have universal authority over all branches of the system. That is why negative feedback has all but collapsed in our administration. Many legislators have become a law unto themselves and incurably corrupt. To correct this system what is known as “civil society” has emerged.

Civil society is composed of self-selected activists who are alarmed by the way the system is moving. They bring pressure on the owners of the system (the legislators) to correct themselves. Unfortunately, the “owners” are happy with the way things are and do not want to change — except, perhaps, make some cosmetic changes. That results in a conflict between self-selected civil activists, who present themselves as moral censors, and those in authority who claim to have been elected by the people in fair elections. That is the situation in India today.

The selection of the candidates is by a party high command; it is not democratic but completely autocratic. That is, the legislators may be elected but they are not selected by the public. Hence, strictly speaking, few legislators have any loyalty to their constituents. They function more as hangers-on of their high commands rather than as true representatives of the people. The solution is simple: adopt the system of selecting candidates that mature democracies such as the UK and the US follow. However, that is easier said than done.

Another problem is how do we reconcile the power of the legislator to tax and decide how the tax should be spent with the autonomy that the judiciary, the executive and the feedback authority should have. Activists like Anna Hazare have tried to force the government to accept a new element in the form of the Lokpal, which becomes a super-judiciary. The legislators are opposed to any such authority. That is where the conflict resides at present.

People forget that the Lokpal will be selected by legislators and their salaries and authority too will be determined by legislators. Activists have forgotten that the basic problem is autonomy — for the executive, for the feedback authority and for the error detector. A Lokpal is liable to dwindle into another judiciary and get corrupted, too.


I make two suggestions: One: let the Election Commission insist that only those parties that truly practise inner-party democracy will be recognised. Two, the salaries and perquisites of the executive, the feedback authority and of the error detector should be fixed in terms of purchasing power parity and taken out of the control of the legislators.

Likewise, the selection, the posting and the promotion of all those officials should be done by an autonomous authority (like the Election Commission) and not by legislators. Subject to those conditions, legislators can make laws, can tax and spend whatever is left from the salaries in whatever manner they like. That is the kind of reform that civil society should agitate for, one which legislators should accept.

Almost definitely, no party in India will agree to either of these two suggestions. At the same time, there is the case of the Election Commission, where Mr Seshan as its chief wrested autonomy for himself and that autonomy has become permanent to this day.

Legislators will agree that, as a result, elections in India have become fairer. Yet, they cling to petty authority, forgetting that a person becomes more powerful when he or she delegates as much power as possible. I wonder whether an officer, preferably a secretary to the government, can appeal to the Supreme Court that he should have the same security of tenure as the Election Commissioners and that he should not be obligated to issue any oral order of a minister.

That would make an interesting case. Likewise, somebody (National Election Watch?) should move the Supreme Court requesting it to direct the Election Commission to bar any party that does not practise internal democracy. We cannot say what the Court will decide but that appears to be a worthwhile solution, something worth attempting.

(The author is a former Director, IITMadras.)

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