Shadowy feature of fragile democracies, ‘seen’ now in the US

Shadowy feature of fragile democracies, ‘seen’ now in the US

Aides of the US President have alleged that the “Deep State” is out to target his administration. To Indians, the expression is familiar in the context of Pakistan — but what does the Deep State really mean?

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Donald Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon (right, seen here with fellow White House advisor Stephen Miller) has said the President is focussed on ‘deconstruction of the administrative state’. Reuters

Among the many things brought into the popular American political lexicon by Donald Trump’s supporters is the phrase “Deep State”. Although President Trump has himself not publicly used the term, his supporters have cited Deep State leaks from the government with an aim to embarrass his administration. Following the resignation of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn in February, interest in the term online in the United States reached its highest point, according to Google Trends data.

The phrase Deep State refers to an architecture of unelected government officials, mostly comprising shadowy characters from the intelligence community, which operates outside the democratic system to undermine elected leaders. The expression is believed to have originated in Turkey — a translation of the Turkish “derin devlet” — which The New York Times defined in a 1997 article on Turkey as “a set of obscure forces that seem to function beyond the reach of the law”.

After German Chancellor Angela Merkel complained that the US was tapping her phone, author and Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan wrote, in the American system, of “a deep state consisting of… intelligence and security agencies, which are so vast and far-flung in their efforts that they themselves don’t fully know who’s in charge and what everyone else is doing”.

Originally, even in Turkey, the Deep State referred to a network of individuals in different branches of government, with links to retired generals and organised crime, that existed without the knowledge of high-ranking military officers and politicians. Its purported goal was to preserve secularism and to destroy communism. From the 1950s on, the Turkish Deep State sponsored killings, engineered riots, colluded with drug traffickers, staged “false flag” attacks and organised massacres of trade unionists. Thousands died in the chaos that it fomented.


The term has since been used to describe unelected but influential members of the intelligence community, the bureaucracy and the military in countries like Egypt, Pakistan and Russia. All these states have had weak democratic set-ups, with strong military and intelligence establishments. In Pakistan, General Yahya Khan described the Pakistan Army in 1968 as the defender of the “ideological frontiers” of the state. The Pakistan Army started to define the supreme national interest on its own terms, leading coups, which the judiciary justified by invoking the “doctrine of necessity”. Even when an elected democratic government is in power in Pakistan, it does not exercise full control over the country’s foreign policy, particularly towards India, Afghanistan and the US. The Deep State works for the furtherance of the military’s aims in the region.

The Pakistani Deep State, comprising the Army, the ISI and the jihadists, has been particularly active in targeting India. Besides continued support to militancy in Kashmir, it has targeted the Indian mainland through terror strikes, the most significant and far-reaching of which have been the attack on Parliament in 2001 and the attacks in Mumbai in 2008. Even when civilian governments have tried to cooperate with India on cross-border terror, their inability to neuter the Deep State has been exposed. The Deep State has targeted the civilian leadership within the country as well, using its influence over the media to shape a particular narrative. It has acted to protect the Pakistan Army — in spite of its disastrous showing in the 1965 and 1971 wars with India, and more recently when US Special Forces carried out a raid deep inside Pakistani territory to kill Osama bin Laden.

In recent years, some Pakistani commentators have alleged the existence of an Indian Deep State in Kashmir. But India’s democratic institutions are strong, and officials are regularly turned over — and this is a case of looking at India through a Pak prism. As long as there is a system of adequate checks and balances in the system, with public accountability through various institutions, there is little chance of India going down that path.