Readers of Strobe Talbott's interview account of his dialogue with India in the aftermath of the 1998 nuclear tests may recall his telling description of the atmosphere in Washington, DC that fateful May when CNN broke the news from Pokhran.
It was not only that President Clinton, his Secretary of State and the top brass of the CIA went apoplectic at the audacity of a country they viewed as exotically pretentious. Their real fury stemmed from the fact that the entire administration was caught napping.
Big powers don't like to be caught unawares. The diplomatic and intelligence establishments may be powerless to influence the actual course of events, but they loath being taken by surprise. And, predictably, a surprise prompts angry, knee-jerk reactions.
India, quite rightly, perceives itself as an emerging world power and the big brother of South Asia. It likes to be consulted, informed and, in turn, influence neighborhood developments.
Two months or so ago, New Delhi had an inkling that Nepal's King Gyanendra was contemplating assuming direct charge of the country's affairs and jettisoning a discredited and fractious political class. It advised the King against removing the buffer between the Maoist insurgents and the monarchy. It is understood that the US endorsed India's stand.
The monarch held back for the moment but chose to ultimately disregard the advice. On February 1 he surprised India by staging a monarchist coup and removing all pretence of civilian control. He followed it up with restrictions on civil liberties and press freedom┬Śmoves that invariably provoke howls of international protest.
It is the indignation that comes from being made a monkey of, and not the discomfort of having to deal with a undemocratic dispensation, that explains the outrage in New Delhi over developments in Nepal.
The prime minister who has no problems sharing Urdu couplets with Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf, breaking bread with Myanmar's Senior General Than Shwe and inviting the King of Bhutan to grace the Republic Day parade has declined to shake hands with an autocratic King Gyanendra at the thwarted SAARC summit. The Indian army chief has cancelled his goodwill visit to Kathmandu and there is talk of suspending all arms sales to Nepal.
To add to its furtive search for a popular insurrection in Kathmandu, an over-indignant media has published ridiculous stories of a Tienanmen Square-type massacre in Pokhra.
The King, with whom India has always had an awkward relationship, not least because it is unused to dealing with monarchs with forthright views, has also been personally vilified and called 'dodgy.'
Whether at the inauguration in Washington, DC or the polling booths in Iraq and Bihar, democracy is the flavor of the season. Under the circumstances, it doesn't do for a monarch to entertain proactive notions of kingship and show politicians the door.
Yet, before the Nepal King finds his place in the pantheon of global dictators such as General Pinochet and the former Shah of Iran, certain observations are in order.
First, for all practical purposes, Nepal has ceased to be a functioning democracy since 2002. The last election was conducted some eight years ago. All the governments that have assumed charge since then have been nominated by the king. The only difference this time is that the king has also assumed the role of prime minister.
Second, the turbulence in Nepal that has cost some 11,000 lives has not come about because of undiluted royalist ambitions. It began with the Maoists launching a so-called People's War in 1996 and the complete inability of the political class to cope with the menace. The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) doesn't believe in dialogue or the constitutional path. It believes that the Himalayan kingdom will prove the continuing relevance of Lin Biao's revolutionary path of surrounding the towns from the countryside.
The king, who has never believed in the laidback approach of his late brother, has merely taken advantage of this state of national disrepair to suggest that he can best lead the charge against the murderers who wave the red flag. In the process, he hopes to elevate the status of the monarchy in Nepal and make it a force somewhat akin to the military in Pakistan.
Third, despite encouragement from India and the West, the political class has failed abysmally to get its act together. Girija Prasad Koirala, the head of the Nepali Congress -- the most significant political party -- has refused to countenance power sharing with either his former party colleague Sher Bahadur Deuba or leaders of the pro-monarchist Rashtriya Prajatantra Party who were made stop-gap premiers after 2002.
Nepal has often been called a 'failed State.' That seems to be an exaggeration. It is actually a failed democracy.
King Gyanendra's faith in his ability to steer the country into stability and economic prosperity may well be misplaced, but the South Asian experience suggest that non-ethnic insurgencies are rarely settled by following democratic niceties -- the so-called 'socio-economic' approach so favoured by the international community of do-gooders.
The Naxalites in West Bengal, the Khalistanis in Punjab and the JVP in Sri Lanka were defeated by meticulous military operations that violated every clause of the human rights charter. India can hardly pretend that its localised counter-insurgency strategies don't tally with the course King Gyanendra is contemplating. Saving democracy has invariably entailed putting democracy on the backburner.
As the dust settles in Nepal, India has to exercise a few hard options.
It can choose to make the ruffled egos of its own establishment the driving force of punitive action against the king. In the process it will be handing over Nepal on a platter to Comrade Prachanda. It was precisely such a mistake on the part of President Jimmy Carter that won the day for Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran.
As it is, the Congress is playing a dangerous game appeasing the Maoists at home. The newly formed CPI (Maoist) is delighted at being able to encash the IOUs it secured from the Congress during last year's general election.
There is, of course, an alternative course. India must recognise that the greatest danger to national security stems from a Maoist victory in Kathmandu. Such a turn of events will make the whole of eastern and central India vulnerable to insurgency -- a prospect that is deliciously anticipated by a section of the Pakistani and Bangladeshi military establishments.
There is no alternative but for India to make the defeat of the Maoist insurgency in Nepal its immediate and unwavering goal. The Royal Nepal Army has to be given all the assistance to mount an offensive against the insurgents to force them back to the negotiating table. The restoration of democracy is a medium and long-term imperative.
Nepal needs our help. The sermons and gratuitous indignation can await another day.