King Gyanendra's first foreign trip is perhaps going to be his most challenging one. Seldom free of the clash of conflicting interests, Indo-Nepal relations have been suffering from a noticeable lack of mutual trust. Despite repeated assurances from New Delhi, Nepali authorities believe that several Maoist leaders continue to operate out of safe havens in Indian territory. Perhaps to balance the score, India's hawkish Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani aired his own grievances about other terrorists in Nepal early this week.
This was a shrewdly-placed curtainraiser to the royal visit. The Indian Home Minister publicly alleged that two Kashmiri militant outfits had set up base in Nepal. Discussions about terrorism in South Asia run the risk of turning into mutual blame-throwing if the Advani red herring is equated with the hard reality of Confederation of Communist and Maoist Political Organisations of South Asia (CCOMPOSA).
Officials accompanying King Gyanendra will have to convince India's hawkish foreign policy bureaucracy that Nepal doesn't stand to gain anything by allowing Kashmiri militants to operate from its territory. Kashmir is now an international issue being monitored by the Americans, with Indian concurrence, even if not at its behest. Kathmandu has too many problems of its own to bother about the "most dangerous region in the world".
The ground reality on the trade treaty and transit facilities front is even worse. Indian intransigence has effectively killed processing (allright, allright, "repackaging") industries such as vanaspati ghiu, copper wire and acrylic yarn. The dry-ports built with World Bank loans at Birganj, Bhairahawa and Biratnagar remain deserted because the promised rail links to Indian railheads haven't materialised. Having been a successful businessman once, and one who had trading and industrial links with Indian business houses, King Gyanendra must be aware of the influence that these industries have in the corridors of power in New Delhi. The challenge before Nepali negotiators is to convince the captains of Indian trade and industry that a more liberal regime between the two countries is financially more beneficial for both sides.
Personally, the king may feel that the New Delhi establishment is using the opportunity to scrutinise his attitude-size him up, as it were. Perhaps owing to his business background, King Gyanendra is considered conservative by India's chattering classes. This is in sharp contrast to the liberal image that King Birendra enjoyed during the 1990s. The canards spread by the Maoists against the present monarch haven't succeeded in damaging the reputation of the monarchy. By and large, the Indian media ignored the wild conspiracy theories about the Narayanhiti massacre. Even so, officials accompanying King Gyanendra would do well to not take offence should some uncomfortable questions be recklessly flung at them by irreverent members of the taboild TV in New Delhi. We may not like the way Zee and Aajtak portray Nepal, but we ignore them at our own peril.
The Indian intelligentsia will be the hardest to handle. Recent developments in Nepali politics have put a question mark over the future of democracy in this country. A direct royal take-over can be ruled out for the present. But the possibility of "postmodern authoritarianism" is not outside the perimeter of possibility. It has all the trappings of democracy, but the chief executives have total control over all operations. Elections at the shareholders' meet of public limited companies are seldom rigged, but the results are almost always predictable. In an ideal world, a head of state wouldn't need to explain his domestic policies to another country, even if it were his closest neighbour. But the relationship between India and Nepal is not just different, it is unique, and it has its own compulsions.
Another constituency that King Gyanendra will do well to cultivate are the sadhu-sants of Hindustan. These ascetics and saffronites have formidable clout in directing how the present rulers of the Delhi darbar frames foreign policy. When it concerns the only Hindu kingdom of the world, it can be safely assumed that the acolytes of the Mahanta of Ayodhya and the Sankracharyas of the Jyotirpeeths will have some say.
Most of all, the King's entourage to New Delhi will be hard pressed to explain our misgivings about the 1950 peace and friendship treaty. The acquisition of weapons from countries other than India to fight the Maoists is an important issue, and it hasn't been debated in Nepal with the seriousness that it deserves.
And then there is the looming uncertainty in Singha Darbar. Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba is busy stirring up a completely different pot of dhindo at this moment. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is not too free either, preoccupied as he is with Kashmir and Gujarat. Vajpayee has his mandarins from South Block to hold the fort. So all we have is the symbolism of seeing on our television screens the King of Nepal meeting the President of India. The real stuff will have to be hammered out by the politicians and bureaucrats in Kathmandu and New Delhi.