From Himal Southasian, Volume 13, Number 1 (JAN 2000)
King Birendra of Nepal, who just turned 55, should be more actively involved in the development concerns of his long-suffering subjects. His constitutional position would allow such a role.
During Nepal’s successful People’s Movement of 1990 against the absolutist Panchayat system headed by the king, there were many who warned that a weakening monarchy could lead to the withering away of the Nepali nation-state itself. After all, the king was supposed to be the symbol of unity in a multi-ethno-linguistic country, the only glue binding a disparate population together.
Ten years down the road, that sentiment still prevails in some sections of Nepali society. But it has become clear that the monarchy is not indispensable for the survival of the Nepali nation. There are other elements in this decidedly fractured land that make these mountains and plains together a ‘country’. Unlike many other nation states of the developing world and of South Asia, Nepal is a historically evolved entity and not one created by the departing colonist’s drafting pen. Nepali kings played decisive roles in this evolution of Nepali history, and till recently it was considered axiomatic that Nepal without a king was unthinkable. We now know that it is not.
But it is important to add imme-diately that having a monarch is a boon for Nepal. It can even be a bonanza. Kingships and kings in modern times can be guides and guardians. They remain above everyday politics, provide continuity and unity and actively take up social and cultural causes. Monar-chies, wisely handled by the incum-bent, can be a trip-wire for national stability. Few countries in the region have an institution as potentially useful as Nepal’s crown.
Although the 1990 movement did not have the abolition of monar-chy as its goal, some say Nepal came perilously close to losing its kingship. Indeed, given the fracti-ous nature of Nepal’s party-led politics and the rising political aspirations of various ethno-linguistic groups, it should be considered redeeming that the 1990 movement did not sweep away the generally well-regarded institution altogether. A constitutional monarch still has a role, however limited, in a democratic Nepal still fighting and struggling for social and economic progress.
On 29 December 1999, when King Birendra turned 55, he had been on the throne for 28 years. The first 18 years he ruled as an absolute monarch, and following the poli-tical change in 1990, he has been meek and ‘constitutional’. Because he has remained an avuncular presence who shuns the political arena which he once directed, King Birendra’s stock has risen. Without even trying to, the king finds himself commanding respect and genuine fondness from his people. This is partly due to King Birendra’s own pleasant demeanour which the public senses (it is never allowed close enough to confirm this, though). The popularity of the king is also due to the inability of bungling political parties to provide good governance, and the public’s acceptance of a king matched to the country.
So, in the last 10 years King Birendra has risen in the public’s esteem, and he enjoys tremendous goodwill. The only hitch is that this goodwill is not being put to best use in a country which, even by South Asian standards, is at the bottom of the economic heap. Indeed, over the course of the last decade, King Birendra’s increasing popularity has remained a latent or static reso-urce. He could, like Thailand’s King Bhumibol, become more interested in social, cultural and development efforts and focus national attention on priority areas like education, health, agriculture or tourism. This can be done only at the king’s personal interest and initiative. The question is: would he want to do it given that he has not felt the need for the past 10 years?
Indeed, King Birendra has retreated behind the gates of the Narayanhiti Royal Palace, shutting himself off from all activities that could make a positive difference to the lives of Nepalis who are caught in the throes of modernisation and jolted by social and economic upheavals. And yet, the one fear of being criticised for being politically active, has made the king and his advisers averse to venturing into arenas where he may, and should, be active.
No doubt, if King Birendra were to get active in the social and cultural sphere, there would be voices raised from within political parties denouncing him for wanting to dapple in politics against the letter and spirit of the 1990 Constitution. However, such opposition can easily be disregar-ded and will be ineffectual if King Birendra acts with will and worthy motive. If and when he does that, he must be supported by the intelli-gentsia and the press, which must see in a non-political monarch’s actions a uniquely Nepali resource.
The pace set by King Mahendra when he introduced the Panchayat system in 1960, had dissipated by the second decade of his son’s reign in the 1980s. The economy was stagnant, environmental destruction had accelerated, Kath-mandu Valley succumbed to uncontrolled urbanisation, the bureaucracy evolved into a clique of corrupt yes-men, and the educational system from primary schools to the university was a mess. The only area where the government was truly energetic was in moving amongst the donor countries, begging bowl in hand.
King Birendra’s 18 years of rule under the Panchayat dispensation were those many years of development neglect. Most importantly, the self-esteem of the Nepali people was slowly sanded down to cynicism and apathy, which afflicts Kathmandu’s elite even today. If Nepal lacks brilliance in social, economic or political spheres, it can be attributed to the intellectual stagnation fostered during that period by a regime incapable of looking beyond the security of the crown. King Birendra, who was both the fount and executor of all power in those decisive years, must be considered responsible for the lost decades, and for its legacy today.
If it is true that benevolent dictatorship is possible only with a monarchy (because the king does not have to make compromises to get to ‘the top’), then King Birendra certainly had an opportunity to prove it right when he ascended the throne in 1972. He had the perfect tool of a political system in place that concentrated all powers in his hands. And, as importantly, he was someone not inclined to despotism (for it is well known that the Panchayat system may have run an authoritarian state, but it never came close to resembling the notorious police-states of Latin America).
He started out well. In the two decades as an all-powerful king, presiding over an autocratic political system bequeathed him by his father, King Birendra took steps towards reforming the polity and embellishing the system with democratic elements. Neither can King Birendra’s personality (affable, by all accounts) nor his commitment to democracy (demonstrated in the manner with which he capitulated to the People’s Movement before the country went into a bloody tailspin) be faulted. Rather, it is lack of dynamism and staying-power, which were the weak elements during the period that King Birendra ruled.
Back then, good intentions were aplenty. As crown prince, the king established an anti-corruption probe body just outside the palace gates. Early on, recognising the importance of education, he tried to steer an innovative course with the New Education System Plan, and also started the much-appreciated National Development Service (NDS), which required all post-graduate students to work for 10 months in the villages as prerequisite for their degrees.
The king also divided the country into five development regions, and ‘development’ became the ‘ideology’ of the state. The king’s liberal side was seen in 1980, when, following a brief period of student unrest, he declared a plebiscite asking people to choose between the incumbent Panchayat system, albeit ‘suitably reformed’, and multi-party democracy.
In each of these actions, King Birendra’s leadership was marked by an inability to stay the course, a tendency to waver at the insistence of family members and the royal palace secretaries, and tolerating the notoriously opportunistic politicians of the Panchayat system.
Perhaps the most striking retreat was the closure of the NDS programme, which was the king’s own creation and the one social project that the Panchayat system may have had to show for itself. Even as it was turning into a success, the 1980 plebiscite was announced. And the NDS was summarily discontinued in what was a well-founded fear that educated young men and women would be campaigning in the villages for democracy.
It is tragically ironic that King Birendra was not able to make an impact on education even though this was where he had shown avowed interest. It is the price of that failure that today the country suffers under the weight of mediocrity in all sectors of national life. (It is a different matter that Nepal’s new elected political elite, too, have grievously neglected education.)
As for the delineation of development regions, in the end it never became clear to what end it
was done. Towards the end of the Panchayat system, the annual inspection tours by the king of the development regions had degenerated into a well-enacted farce.
Nepal’s political parties after the restoration of democracy may not have been able to inspire confidence in the people, but there is no alternative to the 1990 Constitution. The question of reinstating the king’s direct rule does not arise for the simple reason that it was precisely because the unrepresentative Pan-chayat system was not providing societal advance that the public demanded change 10 years ago.
Fortunately, the king seems committed to go by the book—to reign and not to rule. From what is known, King Birendra temperamentally makes an ideal constitutional monarch. He wishes well for his people, and is not driven to distraction over the loss of his absolute power—a condition which his late father certainly suffered from when he carried out the palace coup of 1960.
However, for the Nepali public to take full advantage of this constitutional monarchy, King Birendra must become more involved in the everyday life of the country. If anything, this is required to make up for lost time. The decades of stagnation under Panchayat rule guaranteed today’s delays in democracy delivering development.
The role of the king these past 10 years has been confined to ceremonial functions like inaugurating international conferences and broadcasting messages to the nation. Obviously with King Birendra’s acquiescence, his palace functionaries work to keep him formal and aloof. The king is not allowed moments for impromptu interchange at public gatherings. At the institutional level, the palace does not seem to be interested in King Birendra being passionate about anything at all.
Keeping the Nepali monarch aloof from the Nepali people is a strategy that harks back to the authoritarian days when the aura of rarefied royalty would get tarnished if the king and queen were allowed to mingle with commoners. The new demands made of the constitutional monarch by the people and their Constitution, which require his activism in the social and economic spheres, require the development of a new persona—one which can inspire at a personal level. Instead, the royal palace secretariat seems to be made of individuals who are unimaginative and who do not take risks. An inactive king who is kept at a distance from the populace is thus robbed of his obvious humanity.
What King Birendra chooses to focus on in a more active role would, obviously, have to be based on his own personal interest. He has before him a country full of challenges, an arena like public health, education, cultural or environmental conservation would not be hard to find. Any such activism by the king would have to be supported by a competently staffed palace secretariat that knows not only how to conduct political intrigue, but to back up what should be the monarch’s decidedly non-political agenda.
An active royal interest in these matters would benefit Nepalis, and it would also raise the king’s own profile as a constitutional monarch, and set a precedent for the future. The political parties and civil society have to give King Birendra the space for this. But first, he has to want to do it.