Sceptre consigned to history, but the spectre of monarchy haunts Nepali society

Pro-monarchy demonstrations by some groups in Kathmandu stoke debate if the current crop of politicians are failing to consolidate the republican system in Nepal

Updated - November 29, 2023 02:39 pm IST

Published - November 23, 2023 06:00 am IST - KATHMANDU

A clash erupts between the police and demonstrators during the pro-monarchy march in Kathmandu on November 23

A clash erupts between the police and demonstrators during the pro-monarchy march in Kathmandu on November 23 | Photo Credit: REUTERS

The crown and sceptre were consigned to history 15 years ago in Nepal. But the spectre of monarchy continues to haunt Nepali society. 

On November 23, people from diverse groups descended on Kathmandu, the capital, to stage a demonstration against the republican system. One among many of their other demands was reinstatement of the monarchy and reversal of Nepal as a Hindu state. Their number was far less than expected—the authorities had deployed around 10,000 security personnel in view of a huge protest. But it took people equally by surprise that they had travelled all the way to Kathmandu from various parts of the country at the call of just one individual who goes by the name of Durga Prasai. 

A counter-protest was announced by Yuba Sangha, the youth wing of the main Opposition Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), or CPN (UML). The government designated several areas in Kathmandu prohibitory zones fearing possible clashes and allotted two different places for them to demonstrate.

The demonstrations passed off largely peacefully with just sporadic clashes and no serious incidents reported. Nonetheless, the event did stoke a debate if the pro-monarchy, pro-Hindu demand is indeed getting ground and if the foundation of the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal is so weak that it can be shaken by some on and off protests.

“The foundation of republicanism is definitely not weak,” says Dr. Lok Raj Baral, a former professor of political science at Tribhuvan University and a diplomat who served as Nepal’s ambassador to India. “The monarchy is dead and buried and it’s only in history books now. Nevertheless, regressive attempts by some forces are something that happen in any country’s political course.”

Republicanism under threat?

Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda”, the current Prime Minister, has in recent months made several statements publicly or during closed-door meetings that various elements have been trying to destabilise the system in Nepal. Mr. Prachanda is not the only politician to say so. Most of the leaders of the major political parties, mostly the ones who once cobbled up the republican Constitution, now and then continue to throw the “republicanism under threat” refrain. None, however, has offered any concrete evidence as to who and where the threat is from.

Narayani Devkota, a lecturer at Saraswati Multiple Campus, says creating an imaginary enemy is quite common among Nepali politicians and they are doing the same this time also.

“If there is any threat to the republican system, it is from the ones who are the current custodians of it,” said Ms. Devkota who teaches sociology. “Nepal as a society is also in an evolving stage, which tends to get carried away too soon. And this also is helping politicians, who have failed to do their job, to establish such narratives.”

Nepal officially transitioned into a secular federal republic with the promulgation of the Constitution in 2015. The centuries-old monarchy, however, was abolished by the first meeting of the Constituent Assembly in 2008. King Gyanendra subsequently left the palace, handing over the crown and sceptre to the government for the upkeep. That transfer set into motion the handover of power and authority from the monarchy to the sovereign people. 

Political actors lose the plot

The 2015 Constitution was the culmination of years-long aspirations of the people for the country’s transformation. An equitable society, participation, inclusion, service delivery, development, basic infrastructure were what the people had been longing for, which they believed was stymied by the feudal system on top of which sat the monarchy. Above all, Nepalis longed for a government of the people, by the people and for the people. 

The elections held in 2017 under the new Constitution gave the first republican government. People’s aspirations ran high. But as they say old habits die hard, Nepali politicians refused to stop playing their favourite game of musical chairs. 

“The system changed, but the [people’s] condition didn’t,” said Ms. Devkota. “Disenchantment with political leadership has been growing among the people. But it would be wrong to say they have developed a dislike for the system.”

Even eight years after the Constitution, federalism in Nepal has been a work in progress. The economy is in the doldrums, service delivery has yet to improve, unemployment continues to be the biggest challenge and the issues of inclusivity and equitable society are yet to be fully implemented. 

Dr. Baral says it’s true that people are disappointed and they are in search of some alternatives, but the monarchy cannot be an alternative. 

“People are not against the system, they are disappointed in the current bunch of leaders and their failure to address their concerns,” said Dr. Baral, the author of the recently published book Nepal: From Monarchy to Republic. “As far as some leaders’ statements that republicanism is under threat is concerned, it’s simply because they do not think before they speak.” 

Rise of the right-wingers

November marks the completion of one year since Nepal held the second set of elections under the 2015 Constitution, which further consolidated Nepal’s republican path. But from the same elections, Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP), pro-Hindu, pro-monarchy force, emerged as the fifth-largest party in the Parliament. It was even part of the Prachanda-led government when it was formed in December last year. 

Some call it an absurdity of Nepali politics that Mr. Prachanda, who does not hesitate to join hands with a pro-monarchy force to remain in power, finds some demonstrations by a certain unorganised group as a threat to the system.

K.P. Sharma Oli, the leader of the Opposition, lately has been the main target of Mr. Prasai, and Mr. Prachanda knows he may also not be spared. After all, it was the two communist leaders who had once taken Mr. Prasai under their wing before he metamorphosed into a gadfly who is now bent on biting them.

Mr. Prasai calls himself a businessman, with investments in the medical sector. A person with a dubious distinction, Mr. Prasai once claimed to be a Maoist and enjoyed close ties with Mr. Prachanda. He then switched sides to join Mr. Oli’s CPN-UML. Reported to have bank debt in billions, he started a campaign by gathering people, especially small borrowers from financial institutions, and instigating them not to pay back their loans. His campaign struck a chord with many of those who were in debt. But Mr. Prasai over the months gave a new form to his campaign, evoking nationalist sentiments which he merged with reinstatement of monarchy and Nepal as a Hindu state. 

Rajendra Maharjan, a writer and editor, says Mr. Prasai or any element like him does not pose any threat to the system as such, but as long as the state fails on its promises, it creates spaces for rightwing forces.  

“The current operators of the state should focus on tackling the basic issues rather than scaring people with the narratives like the system is in danger,” said Mr. Maharjan. 

Though Mr. Maharjan rules out any immediate threat to the system, he warns of a possible explosion if frustration continues to grow and rightwing politics gets traction. “The state under the current system has not become dysfunctional yet, it’s just that it’s not working like a well-oiled machine,” said Mr. Maharjan. 

Mr. Prasai’s demonstration has now petered out. It will be business as usual in the coming days, says observers, as they send out warning calls.

Ms. Devkota believes the participation of the people in the recent demonstration can be simply taken as the manifestation of the brewing frustration against the current crop of Nepali politicians. 

Mr. Maharjan says politicians’ continued preference for power over people’s aspirations could set the breeding ground of right-wing reactionary forces.

“Demonstrations here and there demanding reversal of the system are just small bubbles,” he said. “Such events, however, should serve as a wake-up call for the keepers of the republic.”

(Sanjeev Satgainya is an independent journalist based in Kathmandu)

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