NEW DELHI - A key failure of the Narendra Modi government has been its inability - or unwillingness - to break the vice-like grip the deep state has over Indian policy-making and public discourse. The deep state is no leviathan monster. Rather it's an intricate network of politicians, bureaucrats, former judges, retired armed forces officers, senior lawyers, journalists, activists and power brokers.
For decades, this tight circle controlled India 's political, economic and social narrative. Corruption and nepotism bound them together. Many were subverted by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and toed the aman ki asha line. Maoists were lionised. Police officers who fought insurgencies and terrorism were prosecuted.
When the Sonia Gandhi remotely-led UPA government was in office, this powerful and incestuous cabal was in its element. Its members dominated Sonia's National Advisory Council (NAC). Journalists meanwhile, fell under the spell of public relations operators like Niira Radia.
Those were the go-go years of 2004-08. The global economy was on steroids. Foreign investors were pouring into India . The stock market boomed. The then finance minister P Chidambaram was the toast of the town. I interviewed him in his spacious North Block office in September 2004. For the best part of an hour, Chidambaram's eyes rarely left the television screen placed on the wall to his right, flashing the latest stock prices.
As S Gurumurthy, speaking recently about the deep state said, key appointments in the bureaucracy, judiciary and various institutions of governance like the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Enforcement Directorate (ED) and Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) were made on the basis of personal connections and loyalty, not merit.
Those appointees, still occupy positions of authority. Gurumurthy is a former adviser to the late redoubtable Ramnath Goenka, founder of *The Indian Express*. A chartered accountant, Gurumurthy has audited the balance sheets of India 's top companies. A single armed guard stands at the entrance to his office in Chennai where I interview him.
Much of the conversation is off-the record but I do ask him a question that puzzles many Indians: after nearly four years in power, why has the Narendra Modi government moved so slowly to indict, prosecute and jail obvious economic offenders across sectors - from real estate to television media.
Gurumurthy answers with deliberate precision. He says the Modi government is moving carefully because of the deep state that still controls key levers of power: politicians, lawyers, judges, bureaucrats, media, NGOs.
Isn't it extraordinary, I ask him, that a shrewd politician and hard taskmaster like Modi hasn't been able to cut this cabal down to size? The rest of our conversation was off-the-record. On three occasions he requested the tape recorder be switched off while he spoke.
Corruption lies at the heart of the problem. Virtually every defence deal during UPA1 and UPA2 allegedly came with kickbacks in foreign tax havens. The money was round-tripped back to India in real estate companies and other businesses.
Corrupt politicians are the real owners of these companies fronted by benami "businessmen". Money was laundered by benami entrepreneurs, some of whom have been investigated for years at glacial speed. Even in the Karti Chidambaram case, courts have been "compassionate", to cite Gurumurthy, giving him leeway to travel abroad, agree to adjournments by Karti's legal team and delay court proceedings.
More worryingly is the surreptitious help the deep state, flush with ill-gotten wealth of the past and loyal to old masters, receives from within the Modi government. Most Modi cabinet ministers are sincere, honest and hardworking. But there are holdovers with loyalties to the past.
With one year to go for the next Lok Sabha election, what options does Modi have to cleanse the subverted ecosystem he inherited? He should focus on the finance ministry where much power resides. Then he should turn his attention to the defence ministry which is crucial to safeguarding India 's national security and upgrading a deeply eroded military. Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman is honest and able but does she have untrammelled authority?
Two recent episodes were disconcerting. First, the cloud over whether the defence minister gave Jammu & Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti permission to file an FIR against Major Aditya Kumar following the Shopian incident. This has belatedly been clarified with the J&K government telling the Supreme Court on March 5 that Major Aditya was not included in the FIR as an accused. The apex court has stayed the investigation till April 24.
The second episode concerns the defence ministry's mean-spirited decision to go ahead with imposing a cap of Rs 10,000 a month on educational grants to the children of armed forces martyrs. The maximum additional burden removing the cap would have imposed? Rs 3.20 crore. Despite representations by armed forces officers that the cap would affect the morale of soldiers facing Pakistan's mortar shelling across the Line of Control (LoC) and terror attacks in J&K, the defence ministry has refused to remove the cap.
It is such lack of common sense and empathy in government decision-making that the deep state thrives on. To end its influence, Modi must take the bull by the horns. Karti Chidambaram's arrest showed new intent and urgency. Much more remains to be done.
(Courtesy of *Mail Today*)