April was a good month for self-congratulatory diplomacy. First, there was the state department of the United States of America expressing its readiness to transform India into a great power. Then came the exhilaration over the visit of the remarkably mellowed president, Pervez Musharraf. It was followed by the onrush of platitudes and obfuscation from the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, and the announcement of yet another 'strategic partnership'. Subsequently, the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, did a walkabout in Jakarta, before being chosen to speak for the whole of Asia at the 50th anniversary of the Bandung conference. Finally, there was one more high-level 'strategic dialogue' with the Japanese prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi. And yes, just in case someone blinked, the desperate-to-survive UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, also breezed into New Delhi to reiterate India's greatness.
For a country that has spent the greater part of the past five decades wallowing in its glorious past and lamenting its dismal present, it has been a significant turnaround. The heady optimism that first manifested itself in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee years has persisted in the first year of Manmohan Singh. Never mind the power crisis in Mumbai, the civic collapse in Bangalore and the bacterial meningitis in Delhi, India, it would seem, is finally taking off. More to the point, the country is setting its sights high. We want to be a permanent fixture at the UN security council and we don't want to settle for anything less than the high table.
Yet, it would be instructive to look upon India from the vantage point of Kathmandu, the capital of a Nepal that was gratuitously described by The Economist as a 'failed state'. For the past fortnight, there has been both consternation and confusion in Nepal over Big Brother India's stand on developments in the Himalayan kingdom. After King Gyanendra imposed his emergency on February 1, it was understood that New Delhi was not amused. The ministry of external affairs proffered long sermons on democracy and civil liberties, even as it railed against a duplicitous monarch. After an initial bout when indignation meshed with concern, it was decided that India would not supply any more weapons to the Royal Nepal Army for the war against Comrade Prachanda's People's Liberation Army.
That's where things stood until the prime minister and external affairs minister met King Gyanendra on the sidelines of the Bandung jamboree last month. From all accounts, the meetings were convivial and it was agreed that arms supplies from India would resume. On his part, the king assured the Indian leaders that the emergency would be lifted by May 1 and steps would be taken to ensure a phased return of normal political activity, including the release of political prisoners.
Unfortunately, the apparent U-turn of the political leadership did not please the mandarins in South Block ' the covenanted custodians of national interest. Amidst bouts of orchestrated outrage from the fourth estate and the left, it was made out that India had betrayed its self-professed democratic mandate. Seizing on the arrest of the former prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, on corruption-related charges, India did another flip-flop.
Claiming that King Gyanendra had reneged on his assurances given to the Indian leadership in Jakarta, it was decided to keep arms supplies on hold. Even after the emergency was withdrawn on May 1 and more political leaders, including the Communist Party (United Marxist Leninist) leader, Madhav Nepal, released, India responded with the bland assertion that it was not enough. The message from South Block was clear: never mind the Maoists, the king must grovel.
It is a policy that lacks credibility and is likely to be woefully counter-productive. India's post-February-1 grandstanding was dictated by many factors, not the least of which was ruffled egos.
First, there was considerable anger in the top echelons of the MEA that the king had wilfully defied New Delhi's advice to refrain from assuming direct charge. To the former ambassadors who shape India's Nepal policy, the king's action seemed a personal affront rather than a considered gamble. It was decided that the monarch must be taught the lesson of a lifetime so that no future potentate would dare defy India, or at least its pro-consuls, again.
Second, it was believed that the marginalization of the political parties in Nepal would trigger a mass upsurge that would either unseat the king or force him to crawl to New Delhi and reconcile himself to becoming another tourist attraction.
Third, it was also felt that without the discreet assistance from India, the RNA would flounder in the war against the Maoists. There was, in fact, the bizarre spectacle of the Maoist blockades of Kathmandu being quietly cheered in South Block.
Finally, it was put out that the regime in Kathmandu would be completely isolated diplomatically and viewed as a rogue state by all those who had a stake in Nepal. Even the potential danger of China fishing in troubled waters was brushed off. It was claimed that China's priority was to increase its trade with India and that it would do nothing to jeopardize the rediscovery of Panchshila.
Each of these assumptions has proved to be flawed. First, the protests by the political parties have evoked little or no response. On the contrary, so intense is the popular disgust with the politicians who made such a mess of the country that there is a willingness to give the king a chance. Second, far from retreating into their fortified garrisons, a motivated RNA has actually scored a few military successes against the Maoists. The two blockades did disrupt life in Kathmandu, but their impact was nowhere as debilitating as some cussed Indians hoped. Finally, King Gyanendra has offset the diplomatic hostility from India and the West by reaching out to China. In just two months, Beijing has dramatically increased its influence in Kathmandu. There are also indications that Pakistan too is only too willing to give the king a discreet helping hand, not least because it would add to India's problems.
Most important, India's grandstanding has fuelled a fierce anti-India mood in Nepal. There is an understandable nationalist backlash at the presumption of India to determine how Nepal should chart its own future. The image of the pesky, intrusive Ugly Indian has been reinforced in Nepal. The MEA has neither imbibed the lessons of the ham-handed intrusive diplomacy practised in Sri Lanka in the late Eighties, nor counted the costs of playing democratic evangelists in Myanmar in the mid-Nineties. Both these foreign policy disasters had serious national security consequences.
For the past three months, King Gyanendra has tried to persuade India to appreciate his compulsions. His emissaries have spelt out the common dangers posed by the Maoists, a threat well recognized by the Indian military. The efforts have failed, not because objective realities argue against it, but because India's Nepal policy is tied to a churlish MEA desire to give the king a bloody nose. India's national and strategic interests have been mortgaged to a personal agenda of papier-m'ch' Curzons in South Block.
The implications of this subterfuge are profound. If the monarchy is crippled, India will have to end up holding the can for a fractious and unreliable 'democratic' regime. This could even involve direct intervention to keep the Maoists at bay. A royal holding operation, on the other hand, will expose the glaring mismatch between India's policy objectives and its capabilities. Apart from exposing India as a vengeful but thoughtless bully, unworthy of assuming global responsibilities, King Gyanendra would have also taught New Delhi that diplomacy is far too important to be left to diplomats.