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Royalist Realism In A Republican Nepal

Royalist Realism In A Republican Nepal

By Madhav Raj Wagley

When newly appointed foreign ambassadors landed in the Nepalese capital after the heady political changes of April, their dilemma was evident. Going to the palace to present their credentials to King Gyanendra, as their predecessors had, would violate the spirit of Nepal’s “Magna Carta”, the legislative proclamation stripping the powers of the monarch who had just reinstated it.

Perhaps concluding that the proclamation was meant primarily for a domestic audience, the ambassadors-designate chose to adhere to diplomatic convention. In doing so, they prevented Nepal from becoming the first nation without a functioning head of state.

In their maddening rush to “democratize” the state, Nepalese politicians have systematically stripped the monarchy of even the basic role of a head of state.

As someone who participated in some of the mass protests that forced King Gyanendra to cede absolute powers, I was stunned by the scale of the state’s repression. Normally indifferent to the monarchy, I, like many protestors, became convinced that the crown was the principal obstacle to Nepal’s salvation.

As the reinstated legislature began stripping royal powers, I grew impatient – and angry. The people’s representatives should have straightaway announced the abolition of the monarchy and brought the Maoist rebels onboard a republican government.

How naïve I was. King Gyanendra has accepted his humiliation without as much as a murmur. Politicians have equated royal silence with conspiracy. Sections of the media are more aggressive in denigrating the monarchy. Nepal is squandering a real chance for peace as the Maoists and the ruling Seven Party Alliance (SPA) bicker over the smallest of things.

At 84, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala is virtually incapacitated by illness. His two deputies are still squabbling over who is senior. SPA constituents are mired in internal wrangling. Civil society complains the government is going too slow on peace with the Maoists, but its leader, Devendra Raj Pandey, makes it slower by turning down the government decision naming him to head the peace-monitoring panel.

If there is a winner in these last three months, it surely is King Gyanendra. The vigor and stridency of the anti-monarchy discourse has already placed a heavy burden on our putative republic. With no crown to kick around, will Nepalese politicians finally have the honesty of taking responsibility for their actions?

A monarch that can’t choose his successor, can be hauled into court and must pay taxes is not all that appealing. For someone with King Gyanendra’s temperament and outlook, it must be abhorrent. But that’s just about what Nepalese politicians – and most of the people – seem ready to grant the palace as Nepal heads to constitutional assembly elections.

Yet the fickleness of public opinion and the frivolousness of politics make the future highly unpredictable. Some in the SPA have recognized the fallacy of clubbing the fate of the monarchy with the restructuring of the state. They now want a referendum on the monarchy, separate from the task of writing a new constitution.

The Maoists, for their part, want the SPA to abolish the monarchy right away. No wonder they see a referendum as an SPA ploy to retain the monarchy to check the Maoists’ preponderance.

For royalists – a shrinking tribe to which I now must concede I belong – this is a moment of truth. The SPA and the Maoists have both proved King Gyanendra was correct in claiming that the political class did not possess the seriousness the severity of Nepal’s crisis demanded.

The risks he took in seizing in February 2005 were immense. The principal challenge was always clear. As a traditional, feudal institution, the monarchy was from the outset vulnerable to charges of autocratic tendencies. In the months since the royal capitulation, Nepalese have witnessed all kinds of foreign influence and maneuvering from all parts of the world.

In retrospect, King Gyanendra was not merely attempting to free Nepal from the clutches of its giant southern neighbor India. He must have been fed up with the competing and conflicting pressures from all external stakeholders – China, America, European Union, Japan, just to name a few.

Consider the facts. As a country sandwiched between the two Asian giants, Nepal could not afford the burlesque that passed for democracy between 1990 and 2002. Nor could it reverse the universal reality of governance by consent. Nepal’s security, stability and prosperity depended on winning the trust and confidence of both China and India, along with the goodwill and support of the wider international community.

The royal regime’s efforts to expand relations with China were a laudable correction of the distortions that had crept into Nepal’s foreign policy. The palace’s sustained effort to project the cultural and religious heritage Nepal shared with India was aimed at buttressing Nepal’s identity.

The monarch’s plan to develop Nepal as a transit hub between the two rapidly expanding Asian economies was lampooned as a ruse to prolong his rule. While it was based on sound economic realities of today, it also stemmed from Kathmandu’s successful experience in a previous era. For most of his opponents – and he had many -- the “autocrat” label came handy. Indeed, reconciliation among the principal Nepalese political forces would have laid a sturdy foundation for the future. Unfortunately, those abroad bent on widening political rifts prevailed for their own reasons. History might judge the king’s actions in a more dispassionate light.

A resolution of Nepal’s conflict no doubt focuses on future of the monarchy. As someone who has so incessantly invoked the popular will, King Gyanendra, too, might be awaiting that ultimate test. The case is far from open and shut. Let’s say the Nepalese people vote to retain a ceremonial monarchy. Doesn’t the no-taxation-without-representation principle spring to mind? Will a ceremonial monarch then be able to maintain an active – albeit indirect -- political role and as well as non-tax-exempt commercial interests to finance it?

If the choice is between a republic and a monarchy severely emasculated politically, then Nepal should opt for the former. King Gyanendra would be of greater service to the nation as an ordinary Nepalese. In its formative years, our putative republic could benefit from his entrepreneurial zeal, wide international contacts, and decades of political experience.

This is not an apocryphal vision for royalists. As a commoner, Gyanendra Shah can inspire what is today a small but palpably growing constituency of Nepalese who wish to see their historical legacy of independence fuse with their geography-induced opportunities to produce a prosperous future. With the “autocratic monarchy” leash out of the way, the royal roadmap of February 1, 2005 might finally gain that vital resonance.


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