So what is the king doing at a phase when constitutionally speaking, the monarchy is practically in a state of suspension?
By Tilak Pathak
Fate handed Gyanendra a windfall opportunity of becoming king of Nepal twice: In 1950 and yet again in 2001. The first time, he was enthroned for three months, a child-king without any grasp of royal ways.
Opportunity presented itself once again 51 years later in the wake of the palace massacre.
And yet, he could not hold on to his position. The six years following the palace massacre witnessed such massive upheavals that King Gyanendra’s lust for power ended up paving the way for a republic.
So what is the king doing at a phase when constitutionally speaking, the monarchy is practically in a state of suspension?
Is he waiting quietly for the axe to drop on monarchy?
“When the events in the nation disquiets even the likes of us, how can the king stay quiet?” The king’s ADC Bharat Kesar Singh says. “His highness is also concerned. That’s why he meets people.”
Like Singh says, the king’s major activity at present is meeting people- from pro-monarch leaders to intellectuals, journalists and civilians. But not openly, mostly such meetings are underground affairs. The most recent and significant one being the well publicised meeting with Rastriya Janashakti Party chairman Surya Bahdur Thapa in mid-June.
On his return to Nepal after a weeklong visit to India, Thapa “briefed” the king on what India has to say about the political situation in Nepal.
And it is not just Thapa among the former Prime Ministers. Dr Tulsi Giri, Kirtinidhi ista, Marich Man Singh, Lokendra Bahadur Chand, among others have been paying courtesy calls to the king.
Rabindra Nath Sharma, Bishwa Bandhu Thapa, Pashupati Shamshere Rana, among others, have also held talks with the king. Sources state that especially Giri, Surya Bahdur Thapa and Sharma have met the king on numerous occasions.
Aside from those with palace backgrounds, persons form Madhesi and indigenous communities maintaining a “low profile” at present have also been holding meetings with the king.
Nirnajan Thapa, Krishna Lal Thakali, Roop Jyoti and other royal ministers had also met the king in one group once.
A majority of royal ministers had reached the palace to receive tika during Dashain and on the king’s birthday last year.
The king primarily seeks counsel regarding the future of the monarchy and how to perpetuate it during the consultations, sources say.
Many say that the king himself jots down this advice in a diary.
Given the unperturbed countenance the king displays in public, those in the palace surmise that a clandestine accord could have been reached to safeguard monarchy.
However, they have no concrete evidence to back such claims.
It has been revealed that the king has assured many by saying, “What is done is done, there is no use looking back, everything will be right in good time, no need to worry now”.
Amidst this, the king has also accepted that he had made mistakes too. He has decided that accepting the chairmanship of the cabinet had been a mistake.
He also associates his failure with the failure to stymie the 12-point agreement reached between the Maoists and the seven parties and also the failure to create an atmosphere of compromise with the eight parties after the agreement was reached.
But the king’s anger is mainly directed at Delhi’s lack of cooperation. He does not even hesitate to tell his confidantes that Delhi was responsible for the present situation the monarchy is in.
According to a former royal minister, he has considered his failure to use Indian assistance to his favour as a major one.
The king had already begun to realise his and his cabinet’s weakness from the time the April movement was beginning to gain force. He had expressed his dissatisfaction over the lack of coordination among his ministers during a cabinet meet on April 13 2006. The meeting was to be the last meeting of the king-chaired cabinet.
After that, he began meeting with only the more influential ministers.
During a meeting with Home Minister Kamal Thapa on April 19, King Gyanendra had delineated the decision to chair the cabinet and the inability to select appropriate persons as ministers as a failure on his part.
“The choice of people in the first round, that was big mistake,” the king had said.
At the time the April pro-democracy movement was reaching a climax, a draft of a declaration handing over state power to the political parties on New Year’s Day had already been prepared.
“But that did not make it to the new year’s address to the nation,” a king’s assistant says.
According to him, it was not just the king’s own decision that led to the draft being excluded in his address.
“Somewhere, there was input,” he says, “that input had an effect”.
He, however, declined to comment on where that input had come from.
In those days, King Gyanendra paid more attention to the briefing with the four security agency heads — Chief of Army Staff Pyar Jung Thapa, Nepal Police IGP Shyam Bhakta Thapa, Armed Police IGP Saha Bir Thapa and intelligence department head Devi Ram Sharma. The king used to meet the four twice a week while the cabinets meet used to take place once a week.
Ask any of the erstwhile royal ministers, generals and palace officials and the most likely reply these days will run some thing like, “The king never listens to what I/we say” i.e. everyone is trying to show that they were no to blame by maintaining that the king was swayed by someone else’s counsel.
A former minister went as far as to claim, “He turned out to be an ambitious king who lacked skillfulness,” adding “He seemed to think that with a waist coat on, everyone would line up behind him”.
The experience of the former ministers is that the king was well informed about foreign affairs while his knowledge regarding national issues was almost nil and superficial at best. He reflected an inclination to discuss international issues in cabinet meetings but was not interested in reaching the core of national issues.
What is he up to then?
This is probably why the king seems interested in reading books on international politics. Aside from those, biographies and books on religion also feature high on his reading list. King Gyanendra’s habit of reading volumes on nature conservation was forgone soon after ascending the throne.
According to ADC Singh, the king reads all kinds of newspapers. “His highness goes through all papers in the morning itself. When he talks to us, he knows all the goings on and everything in the papers”.
The king’s morning routine includes prayers and morning walks. He maintains a strong belief in religious activities and the occult. In fact, his decision to handover state power back to the political parties came after consultation with astrologists to seek an auspicious moment for the task due to which the April 24 address came only at midnight.
While he used to spend a lot of time in his office during the royal direct rule, at present King Gyanendra barely spends two hours there in a day.
He comes out to the palace gardens on some evenings but not regularly. Drinking two pegs of Black Label whiskey every evening is an old habit that still persists.
During palace parties, he spends a long time nursing a single drink. “He takes nearly two hours to drink two pegs,” a former aide confides, “It becomes difficult for us in those times”.
All not quiet in Narayanhiti
The king has been sitting in his palace since April 24 2006 when he handed over power to the political parties. After handing over power, he has rarely stepped outside the palace to attend formal functions. He first stepped out of Narayanhiti Palace after six days. He drove all by himself to Manbhawan to attend the condolence ceremony of his late Honorary ADC Nara Shamsher JBR. Never before had the palace staff seen the king leave for anywhere alone like that. By doing so he wanted to give out a psychological message: I haven’t given up.
After one month we again saw his active involvement. On May 28 he went to see the Bhote Jatra of Machindranath in Jawlakhel even though the PM had requested him not to attend the function as the Maoists were holding a mass meeting in Khullamanch and security had been beefed up. But the king went saying that “it was a long followed tradition which cannot be broken”. He did finally attend the Bhote jatra. This was his second step against the government’s wishes. Meanwhile, this was the first time the PM was absent at the ceremony.
The cabinet meeting on July 25 last year decided to scrap the palace army secretariat. Immediately afterwards the king went for a month long stay at the Nagarjun Palace. On his return, he reached Hanuman Dhoka to attend the Indrajatra celebrations. The same day, the Maoist trade union was holding a programme at the nearby Khullamanch. The government was once again unable to stop the king’s visit and instead organised another route making the visit an unofficial one.
In Mid August (Bhadra), the king began holding consultations with the former panchas and ex-army generals and he later heightened the consultations in mid December. He met many of them in the palace itself and the rest in the homes of royal relatives. The meetings had been organized with the motive of unifying everyone and moving ahead as one.
After that he was scheduled to go to Hetauda’s Kanti Ishwori Palace on Dec 24 last year and stay there for a month. The palace staff had been sent to Hetauda to renovate the palace and make it ready for the royal stay. However, later after a “firm request” from the PM, the king cancelled his visit. Since the king’s Hetauda visit plan came immediately after the series of violence in Nepalgunj, the government took the visit as part and parcel of a conspiracy. The government was successful in cancelling the king’s Hetauda stay but soon after, fresh violence broke out in eastern Terai.
On Feb 20, when the king went to Pashupatinath to offer his prayers on the occasion of Shivratri, stones were pelted at his vehicle but he seemed undeterred by the incident. Three days later he issued a very strong statement. In his democracy day statement, he not only tried to defend himself by saying that the royal takeover was “a compulsion of circumstances and as per the wishes of the people” but also tried to justify it as being constitutional. This move was condemned by all including political parties and civil society. Later on Feb 26 the Council of Ministers decided to initiate action against the king. However, the decision was never implemented.
In his new year’s message to the nation however, he gave a different kind of statement. He even praised the peace process in the country. But after 10 das he was back on his old track. On April 24, when the entire nation was celebrating the first anniversary of the April uprising, the king not only went to Dakshin Kali temple and offered sacrifices as per long standing palace traditions but also took a royal salute from the army like in the past. This move of his once more stirred the political circle. Perhaps, that was another one of his experimental steps that allowed him to gauge the national politics.
Future of Monarchy
Even if the king is attempting to perpetuate monarchy or to grab power once again, it is easier said than done. Particularly because the seeds of a republic were already sown since the palace massacre that wiped out King Birendra’s line. Gyanendra tried to germinate this seed through his unsuccessful take over. The people’s movement ended up displacing him. The monarch’s ties with the Hindu religion and the army—two prime basis of monarchy—have already been severed. While Nepal has been declared a secular state, the Royal Nepal Army has been renamed Nepal Army and the Prime Minister now its Commander-in-Chief. Even the king’s ceremonial duties have been delegated to the PM. The political parties have already decided to allow the first sitting of the Constituent Assembly to decide the fate of monarchy. In a manner of speaking, the foundations for a republican state are being laid.
“A person’s unpopularity has cost the entire institution of monarchy,” sociologist Dr Sudhindra Sharma says. “The king himself is not qualified for monarchy’s lasting future”. He however estimates that the institution could last if it is associated with traditions only while shunning modernization. “If the same person (king) is allowed to stay on, monarchy will be in dire straits,” Sharma says.
A faction from Delhi has proposed to have King Gyanendra and Crown Prince Paras dethroned for their unpopularity and to be replaced by Navayuvraj Hridayendra as the “ceremonial monarch” and to place Himani as the regent queen. Even PM Koirala himself has announced that “monarchy can be given a space in a situation where the king and prince both abdicate.” However, it seems impossible that a political agreement regarding the same can be reached.
As sociologist Saubhagya Shah says, “Monarchy can no longer be protected by arguments of culture and tradition”. Stating that the logical conclusion to the eight-party’s road map was a republic, he says, “Even the few in favour of monarchy are not organized.”
Some days ago, while meeting the king, RPP leader Bishwa Bandhu Thapa had said, “Your Highness, what you are is because of your soldiers. But you no longer have your soldiers. Therefore, it is fruitless to be worrying about the past and the future”. He further opines, “We (RPP and other pro-royal groups) cannot protect monarchy even if we try. Only the NC has the power to do so now”. Thapa had advised the king that this was possible only through improvement of relations with PM Koirala. The question is, is the king listening?