Though this article was written immediately after king’s first address, UWB has published it in order to bring the issue of monarchy for public debate.
By Mahesh Poudyal
The politics of monarchy
You must be thinking I must have made some mistakes with the heading “politics of monarchy,” you must be thinking “monarchs don’t get involved in politics.” Oh, yes they do, they do in Nepal if you didn’t know already! Of course, in this 21st century it is hard to find monarchy in any form – constitutional or ceremonial, let alone active monarchs. However, by the grace of god or his curse, we Nepalese have got an active monarch, so much active that he had for the past 15 months suspended political and press freedoms, and had tried to “rule” over his “subjects” – we Nepalese people – by any means he could. Okay, enough for the sarcasm – now back to the serious business. The question here is – does Nepalese politics need a monarch(monarchy)?
The question is as complex to tackle as simple it looks. First, let us remind that politics, especially democratic politics has to be “by the people, for the people”. If anyone wants to be active in politics, he/she has to be accountable to the people – especially to hold executive political posts, he/she has to be elected by the people. Even at this day and age, constitutional or ceremonial monarchy, with executive power lying at the hands of elected representatives, would definitely have been acceptable to Nepalese people. The people accepted constitutional monarchy after the democratic movement of 1990, and the late King Birendra was happy to stay as a constitutional monarch, leaving day-to-day running of the country to the elected politicians. Even though there were power struggles between political parties after 1990, including some corruption, we have to bear in mind that our democratic system was still in its infancy and probably the leaders didn’t have much clue as to what “being accountable to their constituents” meant. They would definitely have understood after fighting one or two elections, when people could have rewarded accountable representatives and punished those who were corrupt and unaccountable to their constituents. If I remember correctly that was exactly what happened in the second general election when the people punished Nepali Congress party by taking away their majority for what they had done during the three years of their majority government from 2048 to 2051. Wasn’t that the sign of a maturing democracy even at its infancy? I believe it was.
However, the 2001 royal palace massacre changed all that. I wouldn’t like to go into the details of the massacre itself, but what became clear after Gyanendra became king under those unceremonious circumstances is that he was not prepared to stay just as a constitutional monarch. By clearly stating that he wanted to play an “active” role in Nepali politics, he crossed the boundaries of what a constitutional monarch could/couldn’t do. Moreover, by appointing and sacking Prime Ministers at will by abusing certain sections of the 1990 constitution, he has not only brought about great crisis in Nepalese politics but also a great suffering to the Nepalese people. The final straw was the assumption of the executive powers and suspension of political and press freedoms in February 2005 in the name of bringing peace in Nepal by crushing the Maoist rebellion. After 15 months of that takeover, however, none of the promises that he made were achieved. Neither the peace prevailed in the country nor was he able to crush the Maoist rebellion. The situation has clearly got worse and the spill over of the unstable political situation can be felt in all other sectors, most notably that in the economy.
Now, why should people believe that a monarch (who doesn’t have to get elected) would act in their best interest, when he (the monarch) very well knows that the people cannot make him accountable? The people have no power to vote him out of his office, except by force like that of the French revolution just over a couple of centuries ago. Unless the person in power is accountable to his/her constituents and knows that power can be taken away easily, such as by voting, there won’t be any incentives for him/her to be accountable and act in the greater interest of his/her constituents. In case of Nepal, Gyanendra became king just because he happens to born in Shah dynasty and more importantly he somehow survived the massacre that wiped out King Birendra and his entire family. Now, we wouldn’t be having this debate if he had just stayed a constitutional monarch as his brother King Birendra did. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened and his ambition of playing an “active” political role, his fantasy politics and his abuse of 1990 constitution time and again has eroded any trust that people had in him. Moreover, since he does not need to be accountable to the people, why would he care if the people trust his actions anyway?
Monarchists argue that the monarchs are/have been an unifying force in our country’s politics (BUT also see the upcoming part the culture of monarchy – on this point). May be a proper constitutional monarch like King Birendra had been a unifying force in our country’s politics – especially by providing guidance to the elected political representatives that held power BUT never interfering on what they did. However, there is no evidence to believe that the current monarch, king Gyanendra has been an unifying force in our country’s politics – in fact, the opposite. By his senseless political meandering, he has probably created more political divisions in the country than unification. “Divide and Rule” seems to be the weapon of all autocratic monarchs if we look at the history of monarchy, not only in Nepal but in other countries as well. Same is true in case of king Gyanendra – time and again he has tried to create divisions within our society, within political alliances, and even within political parties. Our country is more divided than ever in these last five years of king Gyanendra’s reign. So how can we believe in the monarchy being an unifying force?
Now, if we do need an unifying force in our country’s politics, a figurehead to look up to, someone who could provide guidance to the political leaders in power (but not interfere), then who better to look to than our own statesmen like Ganeshman, Pushpalal, BP or Manmohan. True they are all DEAD, but if you really want names of those living who could hold similar position in our country’s politics then why not turn to Daman Nath Dhungana, Padma Ratna Tuladhar or even our new hero of non-violence movement – Prof. Krishna Khanal? We need statesmen who provide guidance rather than monarchs who interfere in politics without being accountable to the people. If king Gyanendra would really like to “work for the benefit of ordinary Nepali”, why doesn’t he “take off his crown and fight election with other politicians” as late Madan Bhandari would have put it. He could then have as active role in politics as he would like.
So, what is the verdict then? I would say if the constitutional monarchs in our country had kept themselves true to their constitutional role, there is no denying that the Nepalese people would have embraced them even when they really are white elephants economically. Just looking at the support King Birendra and even Prince Dipendra had (remember massive sense of loss, grief and the shaved heads when they died?), we can safely say that Nepali people were very fond of their monarchs. They trusted them to be true to their roles and saw them as “unifying figures” in Nepalese politics. However, the situation has changed drastically since that fateful event in 2001. Not only was there a sense of anger during the present king Gyanendra’s coronation under those unceremonious circumstances but there also was a sense of suspicion on what really happened that day in the palace, as King Birendra’s family was hastily cremated without proper autopsy or any criminal investigation. To add salt to the wound, Prince Dipendra’s body was cremated without proper funeral procession. However, even after becoming king under those circumstances, ever forgiving Nepalese public were slowly showing support to king Gyanendra and were even beginning to accept him as a figurehead in the country’s politics in his constitutional role. This monarch wouldn’t have it however, and after his actions during the past few years of his reign, especially during the last 15 months, any trust that people had on him has eroded irreparably. There seems to be no way back now than to opt for a monarchy-less political system in Nepal. As I said before, we need a clean statesman who can be a figurehead in Nepali politics, a unifying figure if you will, and not the monarch who interferes in the politics without being accountable to the people.
(To be continued)