KOLHAPUR, India Once the four-lane expressway to Pune is complete, this little city in southern Maharastra will begin to figure on the industrial map of India. For now, it's still better known for its handmade chappals. At 44 degrees in the shade, chappals are definitely more climate-friendly than any Adidas.
Expectations that the new highway will bring economic boom are high, the suburbs are abuzz with hectic construction. Earth-movers and tipper trucks growl at every intersection. The relatively prosperous state government in Mumbai has been financing prestige projects and ambitious welfare schemes by borrowing from central lenders who raise their deposits outside the state, but invest here with business-savvy politicians of the sugar belt.
Maharastra's deficit financing will reach IRs 1 trillion in two years, surpassing India's entire external debt by IRs 50 million. If this bubble bursts, its reverberations will be felt right up to Nepal from where there are hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in this state. The other lesson for Nepal's planners is not to borrow just because lenders are lining up at the door. Case in point: Enron's ill-fated Dhabol powerplant near here. The electricity is intermittent, and one soon gets used to the roar of diesel generators everywhere.
Delegates from India, Sri Lanka, Britain, Germany and Portgual at a media and governance seminar are surprisingly upbeat about Nepal. More upbeat than us Nepalis. The Sri Lankans are impressed that we are sorting out our war ourselves without foreign mediation. The Europeans praise the vibrancy of our civil society, and cite rights groups from western Nepal like BASE and the Aama Samuha. Indian administrators compliment the Nepali media for its coverage of social issues, and for championing human rights despite all odds.
"You have done in 12 years of democracy what we have not been able to do over half a century in India and Sri Lanka," says Leo Fonseka, a scholar from Colombo. That's high praise, but lest it go to our heads, it is important to remind ourselves that we Nepalis tend to go overboard with things. How else to explain our Maoist leaders shaking hands with the prime minister or gracing glittering ceremonies at five-star hotels rubbing shoulders with running dog capitalists?
Here in the southern half of India, King Gyanendra is admired as a Hindu monarch. Kolhapur was the seat of the great Maratha Warrior, Shivaji who defended his kingdom fiercely against the invasion by Aurangazeb, the Mughal Emperor of Delhi. Today, the ruling Shiva Sena party swears by his name and rules by whipping up hatred against all non-Hindus.
It is perhaps natural that many of Shiva Sena's most ardent supporters are Hindu expats from Nepal. But for the future of Nepal-India relations, the Hindu card is of limited value. For every devout Hindu that lined up for the darshan of "emperor of the world's one billion Hindus" during King Gyanendra's recent pilgrimage to India, there are many others who hold that the foreign policy of a 'Hindu Kingdom' must remain India-centric. Issues of foreign policy are decided by hard-headed bureaucrats in South Block, and antagonising them by courting sundry priests and swamis may turn out to be counter-productive in the long-term.
Despite the praise for Nepal from delegates here, it is the fate of democracy back home that worries us. The government of the king's nominees headed by Lokendra Bahadur Chand has already completed its first six months, but there is no indication that the constitutional process is coming back on track. The king has staked all, but for most of his ministers it seems to be pretty much business as usual. Presiding over social functions, releasing cassettes and books, cutting colourful ribbons and then zooming home in escorted flagged limos to watch themselves in the evening news is how the average day plays out.
This is the cause of despair. Despite King Gyanendra's public commitment to withhold the norms of constitutional monarchy and multiparty democracy, there is reason to be worried. With street protests heating up again, Nepali society continues to be precariously balanced between hope and despair.