The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The supreme regional umpire cannot afford to take sides

The British Raj would have sent a proconsul with a small detachment of troops to Kathmandu to 'persuade' King Gyanendra to abdicate, placed some obscure and amenable cadet of the Shah dynasty on the throne and claimed wide popular acclaim for the coup. Its successor in New Delhi sent Karan Singh with a letter and a message.

The obligations that geography imposes remain the same. Manmohan Singh might even improve on Curzon's comment and add the United States of America to Russia and China with whose rulers he has to deal and still find time for breakfast. British India did not play ducks and drakes with princes because of the pious conviction, voiced by a lord chancellor to James I, that 'a king is still under God and the Law'. It did so because personnel decide policies that are essential for security, which, in this case, means arresting Nepal's slide into anarchy, ethnic fragmentation, Chinese control or Pakistani mischief.

That awareness explained Morarji Desai's offer to Madhavrao Scindia of any diplomatic job he wanted save the ambassadorship to Nepal. Presumably, the prime minister felt that a Hindu prince with a Rana mother and a Rana wife might be less than objective in Kathmandu's durbari politics. That sense of detachment is not always manifest. An Indian ambassador in Kathmandu prostrated himself before the monarch whom he saw as Vishnu incarnate long before the Bharatiya Janata Party tried to play the Hindu card. And one of our foreign secretaries bowed and scraped before another king to further his son-in-law's business interests. As bad as subservience was the counter-productive brutality with which the Chogyal of Sikkim was deposed and his kingdom annexed.

It would be unwise to write off that sorry tale of fabrication and force because Sikkim's absorption suggested to the world that India is expansionist if it can get away with it. It also convinced the other two Himalayan kingdoms that their survival could not be taken for granted. Bhutan is today India's most staunch friend but almost one of the young King Jigme Singye Wangchuck's first acts was to repeal a law whereby the monarchy needed a three-yearly vote of confidence from the kingdom's Tsongdu (legislature). The Bhutanese could not be certain that the Tsongdu's simple members would not be pressured as Sikkimese legislators were between 1973 and 1975. Nepal dared to express its fears more vehemently. While mobs demonstrated outside India's embassy in Kathmandu ' which India's patriotic press ignored or dismissed as royal manipulation ' the king frantically sought American guarantees of Nepal's continued independence.

King Gyanendra is a difficult customer. He was suspected of conspiring with the Maoists during the last reign. Darjeeling's Subash Ghising saw him as a patron. Many Nepalese accuse him and his son of complicity in the Narayanhity Palace massacre. But the sequence of events in Sikkim and Indian bullying over trite matters like the honours to be accorded to the Chogyal when he attended King Birendra's coronation can only have reinforced his resentment over India's role in 1950 when the last oligarch prime minister had him crowned after his grandfather fled to the Indian embassy in Kathmandu.

Jawaharlal Nehru helped to overthrow the Ranas in the expectation that the restored Shah dynasty would allow the Nepali Congress to form a government. This is an old bond. When Harkishen Singh Surjeet presides over the Nepal Democracy Solidarity Committee, he is continuing a tradition set by the National People's Congress before independence and continued by Jayaprakash Narayan and the Congress Socialist Party. Reflecting this linkage, Indian papers have been regaling us with editorials disguised as reports. The bias can be glaring. To take one instance, persistent allegations of the police being rough with toddlers ignores the criminal callousness of pro-democracy protesters dragging little children and disabled people in wheelchairs into the melee. Little wonder that King Gyanendra is so suspicious of Indian opinion-makers.

We forget that Nepalese politicians are, normally, far from supportive of India. It is said in explanation that they have to make critical statements for public consumption. If so, it leads to two other conclusions. First, King Gyanendra may also be playing to the gallery. And second, the gallery is anti-Indian. Either way, to adapt Palmerston's famous adage, India has no permanent friends in the landlocked Himalayan kingdom. It has interests and limited options.

Perhaps this is not unexpected. The US is not loved in Mexico or even Canada. But it is respected and ' more to the point ' obeyed. That is the most that a region's principal regional power can expect from smaller dependent neighbours. But the exercise of such power has to blend diplomatic finesse with tough management. That is where India must be faulted. It is not tough enough when it should be. And its diplomacy is not skilful enough either when it should be. The eviction of hundreds of Indian labourers who were robbed and beaten up should have produced a strong public response from New Delhi. The Don Pacifico incident, when Britain almost went to war over the vandalization of a British subject's property, may have been an extreme case, but no government can enjoy respect abroad if it lets foreigners treat its citizens roughly.

Nor can the supreme regional umpire afford to take sides. Yet, the charge that India played the midwife in bringing together the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and the seven parties suggests just this. What makes the action worse is that the Maoists seem to have hijacked the protest and imposed their own violent agenda on their partners. New Delhi might overlook Comrade Prachanda's claim that King Gyanendra's fate is either exile or execution. But can anyone forget that his movement is modelled on Peru's Shining Path revolutionaries and that he predicts war with India as inevitable'

People have seized with glee on the wording of a recent Indian statement that for the first time did not refer to the Nepalese government as 'His Majesty's government'. The same comment is said to have dropped all mention of a constitutional monarchy and a multi-party dispensation as the essential twin pillars of peace and stability. Ironically, New Delhi's plan to depose the Chogyal and absorb Sikkim was also reflected in similar language. That may not be the intention now, but the similarity recalls a Nepalese diplomat's comment in 1975 that India had had Sikkim for breakfast, would lunch on Bhutan and hoped to dine on Nepal, but that the Nepalese would give us indigestion.

The language of diplomacy should be more circumspect just as diplomats should be clear about their aims. There is no point in, say, blockading Nepalese exit points if they have alternative trade routes elsewhere. The implications and interpretations of every move have to be carefully worked out in advance. As time seems to be running out for the Nepalese monarchy, we need to ask some basic questions. What could King Gyanendra have done to avert the crisis' What do the revolt leaders want' What course would most effectively safeguard India's interests'

The answer to the first question does not reveal the monarch as the unmitigated villain he is made out to be. The prime ministers he has dismissed were not popular elected leaders. Their governments were corrupt and incompetent. Not one attempted to address the basic problem of the poor of which we hear so much nowadays. Not one could cope with the Maoist revolt. As for what the populist leaders now want, the answer is a single word ' power. Democracy is only a fig leaf; it is the opiate of the tens of thousands of people out in the streets. Finally, harrowed by its own Maoist terrorists, India needs a regime in Kathmandu that can promise stability and friendly cooperation. Prachanda is hardly the man. The seven democratic parties are hostage to his stratagems. The only alternative to a king whose current unpopularity may owe something to India's attitude is his even more egregious son and heir.

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