By Sanjay Upadhya
The idea that the deep unpopularity of Nepal’s last monarch became the greatest catalyst for republicanism has an alluring pithiness. But tight headlines and terse nut-graphs cannot tell what is, by any measure, a far more complex story. The Nepalese political discourse has been dominated by incessant criticism – justified as well as inflated – of the palace. This singular obsession with former king Gyanendra’s “excesses” and the monarchy’s inherently “anti-democratic” proclivities creates a warped picture of the past. More importantly, it obstructs the extrapolation of valuable pointers for an increasingly uncertain future.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the monarchy was not always the preponderant national institution during its 240-year existence. The death of Prithvi Narayan Shah, seven years after the founding of the Nepalese state, led to a weakening of the monarchy. A succession of minor kings left rival royal factions competing for power. The loss of a third of the nation’s territory in a debilitating war with the British only fueled the feuds. From the bloodletting rose the Ranas, who oversaw the eclipse of the monarchy for over a century.
Nepal’s foray into modernity in the 1950s revealed the new contradictions the monarchy would reign atop. The overthrow of the Rana regime, hailed as the dawn of democracy, ended up consolidating the monarchy. The inauguration of Nepal’s first elected government precipitated a battle of wills in which the palace prevailed over the Nepali Congress. Royal preponderance reached its zenith during the three decades following King Mahendra’s dismissal of Prime Minister B.P. Koirala’s government and abolition of multiparty democracy.
The incongruity of an impoverished nation having to finance an expensive institution was ideologically anathema to the communists. Yet the communists, whom the palace considered a counterweight to the Nepali Congress, prospered the most during 30 years of palace-led nonparty rule. The Nepali Congress, for its part, saw a constitutional monarchy as a bulwark against a preponderance of the left. Yet it made attempts on the lives of two kings.
The restoration of multiparty democracy in 1990 was expected to put Nepal irrevocably on the path of democratic modernity. Barely six years later, an avowedly republican Maoist insurgency helped the palace to gradually consolidate its position. International and regional powers, mindful of such internal contradictions, considered the palace the fulcrum of stability. India and the United States – the world’s two most prominent democratic republics – joined communist China to support the monarchy.
That compact was shaken – more internally than internationally – by the June 2001 Narayanhity massacre. The carnage dealt a grievous blow to the monarchy from multiple directions. It ended any halo of divinity surrounding the monarchy. The notion that the king was the guardian of the nation exploded with the bursts of gunfire. Nepalis were reminded of the history of bloodshed and machinations associated with palace politics.
The shady reputations of the new monarch and the heir apparent, coupled with swirling suspicions of their role in the palace massacre, could hardly provide a promising beginning. Yet the political parties lay discredited by their own performance and the Maoists had little to offer politically. A wary political class as well as public watched King Gyanendra’s moves to strengthen the palace’s role. Still, the royal interventions of October 2002 and February 2005 failed to rouse the people into vigorous opposition. Within Nepal, the two events were considered part of a continuum. Geopolitically, they were different. The contrast revealed an essential truism of Nepalese politics. International and regional powers, with their competing interests in and expectations from Nepal, have precipitated political changes.
When King Gyanendra dismissed an elected prime minister in 2002 for failing to hold elections on schedule, India and the United States seemed generally content. China maintained its characteristic silence. Over the preceding years, Western governments and international donors had been growing increasingly critical of the infighting, corruption and mismanagement that had gripped the polity. Their representatives in Kathmandu had become increasingly explicit in voicing those concerns.
The 2005 royal takeover, on the other hand, instantly infuriated the Indians and Americans, while the Chinese, again, professed non-interference. Yet Beijing’s anxiety was clear. A series of palace-appointed premiers had failed to quell the Maoist insurgency, prompting greater Indian as well as American military involvement. New Delhi’s own discomfort with American activism was palpable. Allowing the Maoists to triumph over the state would have grave implications for India’s Maoist insurgency.
Chinese apprehensions ran deeper. The Nepalese rebels’ wholesale discrediting of Mao Zedong’s reputation was intolerable enough, something Beijing expressed with great candor. It was not hard to fathom how a total Maoist triumph could energize restive populations in the Chinese hinterland deprived of a part of the post-Mao economic miracle. The prospect of Nepal’s inexorable drift toward the Indian-American camp carried grave implications for China’s soft underbelly, Tibet. On the eve of the 2005 royal takeover, Nepal shut down the local offices of the principal Tibet-related organizations. The event was thus cast as a pro-Chinese initiative.
Far from extending full support to the royal regime, however, the Chinese remained cautious. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao skipped Nepal during his South Asian tour, sending his foreign minister to Kathmandu instead. King Gyanendra’s anticipated visit to China to mark the 50th anniversary of bilateral ties did not materialize. The Indians succeeded in preventing the Americans from striking a separate deal with the palace. New Delhi, for its part, was negotiating with the king. It bailed out Nepal from massive censure at the UN Human Right Conference in Geneva and dangled the promise of a resumption of military – and perhaps even political –assistance.
A section of the Indian establishment always considered the monarchy the problem and found a conducive political alignment in New Delhi. The communist parties backing the ruling Indian coalition took the lead and moved swiftly to bring the Maoists and mainstream parties in an anti-palace alliance. The Indian army and internal security apparatus, insistent on helping the king and the Nepalese army, was not pleased, as a series of leaks in the Indian media showed. This conflict emboldened the royal government, which sought to internationalize its fight against the Maoists by linking it to the global war on terror. On the ground, it went after the mainstream parties without being able to dent the rebels. New Delhi checkmated the king by facilitating a ceasefire on the eve of his attempt to raise the insurgency at the United Nations General Assembly.
The monarch responded by spearheading a campaign to secure China’s position as an observer in South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. The move came amid China’s drive to block India from regional initiatives in East Asia. In New Delhi, the palace’s brazen flaunting of the “China card” hardened critics and alienated the remaining supporters of the king. The Seven Party Alliance (SPA) and the Maoist rebels hurriedly signed the 12-point pact to bring down the royal regime.
The collaboration energized the Nepalese masses. The opportunity for peace and stability after years of bloodletting and instability was too enticing to squander. As anti-palace demonstrations picked up speed, India sent a royal relative, Karan Singh, as an emissary. The king’s invitation to the SPA to form the next government won instant praise from New Delhi, Washington and London. It failed to quell the protests. For the republican camp within Nepal and outside, the public defiance served to expose the depth of anti-monarchism.
The collapse of the royal regime led to a swift and systematic clipping of the palace’s powers. Still, a republican Nepal was not a done deal. The next phase – the suspension of the monarchy after the enactment of the interim constitution – morphed in line with a careful power play. A precipitous de-monarchization of the nation was precluded by the imponderables involved. The true nature of Nepalese public opinion vis-à-vis the monarchy, the loyalty of the army and the Maoists’ real commitment to the democratic process remained unknown. What was obvious was not inspiring: the mainstream parties’ poor record of governance.
Yet for India, mainstreaming the Maoists had become a matter of national security. The insurgency launched by Indian Maoists, or Naxalites, was spreading fast. The Naxalites were in no position to overwhelm the state, but they risked exacerbating India’s already grave internal security challenge. Engaging the Nepalese Maoists in the peace process through incremental carrots was tied to India’s plan to tame the Naxalites.
For influential international quarters, King Gyanendra became too much of a liability. He continued to insist that he had seized power in good faith, adding that the effort failed because of “several factors”. The caveat could not have been lost on India. For the democratic West, the monarch’s overt tilt toward China was inexcusable enough. His espousal of the Hinduism mantle, with a fervor surpassing that of any of his predecessors, was tantamount to insolence. While Christian organizations had not listed Nepal high on the list of persecutor nations, many called it one of the most unreached nations for the Gospel. A Hindu monarch in a secular nation was far from tenable.
There were scattered reports of contacts in Delhi between the Maoists and Christian groups – some suggesting financial transactions – but they mostly emanated from the Hindu nationalist spectrum of the Indian media. Given the Maoists’ record of successfully using secondary adversaries to accomplish their immediate ends, the convergence of interest was plausible.
Had Crown Prince Paras enjoyed a better public image, forcing King Gyanendra to abdicate in favor of his son might have been an option. Passing the crown to Paras’s son, Hridayendra, would have mollified royalists. For the country, it meant a return of regency. King Gyanendra, more than anyone else, understood what this would mean for the monarchy. He dismissed calls for abdication made by Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala and others.
Publicly, the international community shunned the monarch. Privately they maintained channels. One reason was China’s swift move to build ties with the Maoists. The arrival of a modern high-speed train to the Tibetan capital Lhasa had greatly improved China’s access to Nepal. Nepal’s open border to the south exposed the Indian heartland to what many analysts there considered an enhanced military threat from China. The Terai erupted in violence against centuries of injustices inflicted by the hillspeople. The specific assurances foreign governments sought from the palace in exchange for the retention of some form of monarch remains unknown.
Clearly, the second amendment to the interim constitution, which declared Nepal a republic subject to an elected assembly’s ratification, was intended as a carrot and a stick for the palace. The monarch found more time to reconsider his options. To pre-empt any royal assertiveness, the statute also provided for the removal of the monarchy by two-thirds majority of the interim parliament. This ultimatum failed to influence the king but vitiated the political climate for the palace.
Previously, the Maoists and the mainstream parties – for their own interests – had made a distinction between the institution of the monarchy and individual kings. If Mahendra and Gyanendra were denounced as autocrats, Birendra and Tribhuvan, in their estimation, fared better as liberals. But now statues of Prithvi Narayan Shah were being demolished. Paradoxically, those committed to preserving Nepal’s sovereignty and territorial integrity viewed the state as the culmination of unjust wars of aggressions. Supporters of some form of monarchy in the Nepali Congress attempted to frame the discussion in different ways. The fear of being perceived as royalists in a ruling alliance heavily dominated by republicans dissuaded them. Moreover, royalist parties like the Rastriya Prajatantra Party and the Rastriya Janashakti Party had become monarchy neutral.
Opinion polls up to the run-up to the elections showed that half the country wanted to retain some form of monarchy. A referendum would have put the issue to rest. Victory would have permitted King Gyanendra to recreate the monarchy in his own image. A defeat would have allowed him to depart as a democrat.
Many expected the king to resist the republic declaration. The inability of the ruling alliance to agree on the precise structure of the presidency as well as power sharing up to the first meeting of constituent assembly suggested as much. Whether royal defiance would have succeeded is a different thing altogether. Ultimately, the ex-king saw the overwhelming assembly vote in favor of a republic as the best expression of the popular will under the circumstances which he and his predecessors always invoked.
The monarchy had been central to the policies of the three major international stakeholders in Nepal. The Maoists took in royalists reportedly on the advice of the Chinese to bolster a nationalist front. A Maoist-UML alliance could go a far way toward mollifying Beijing. For New Delhi, the Nepali Congress and the three Madhesi parties could provide succor. Washington, which began its own rapprochement with the Maoists after their electoral success, perhaps sees the military as the backbone of a non-communist front.
The presence of the ex-monarch within the country would probably help stabilize politics in the same way the return of Zahir Shah, Afghanistan former king, helped the Hamid Karzai government find its footing. With the end of the monarchy, a new quest for internal and regional equilibrium has begun.
(A version of this article appeared in the August 2008 inaugural issue of Global Nepali)