The decline of the palace

King Gyanendra faces dwindling support. -- Photo: AP

King Gyanendra faces dwindling support. -- Photo: AP  

TWO INCIDENTS earlier this month, the details of which were reported in the Nepali press, confirmed for many their fears about Crown Prince Paras.

Last Saturday, the Prince stormed out of his father's birthday celebrations and headed to a nightclub with his cousins. When his wife followed him there to take him home, he fired shots from his gun.

Hours later, he jumped into a vehicle with friends, but without his personal security guards, and sped to Pokhara, 200 km away. There, security forces stopped the vehicle and reportedly almost gunned the prince down thinking he was a Maoist guerrilla. They recognised him in the nick of time.

Image problems

Crown Prince Paras is only one of the many image problems that have surrounded King Gyanendra since he took over as Nepal's constitutional monarch after the 2001 massacre at the Narayanhiti Palace.

If the killings of King Birendra and his family diminished the status of the monarchy by exposing the indiscipline behind the Palace walls, his successor has the added problem that Nepalis do not accept the official version of the massacre.

King Gyanendra also had big shoes to fill. In the last years of his life, his brother kept a low profile but his aura grew as the politicians of the new multi-party democracy squabbled among themselves.

The new King's overt political ambitions, his dissolution of an elected Parliament in 2002, followed by his sacking of the Prime Minister, have led to a steep erosion of his personal image and that of the monarchy. He is widely perceived as playing one political party against another in order to strengthen his own position.

"We are hearing slogans on the streets against the King that we did not hear even during the People's Movement in 1990," says political analyst Deepak Thapa.

For the first time too, there is open talk about a republic. The Maoists, who are waging an insurgent war against the state, were the first to bring up the issue, one of their stated aims being the abolition of the constitutional monarchy. But sections of the Nepali intelligentsia, students and politicians have all joined the debate.

"This is not a constitutional monarchy, it is a real monarchy, and the king is the biggest obstruction to democracy," says Lok Raj Baral, professor of political science at the Tribhuvan Universty. Recently, the students at the university voted overwhelmingly in favour of a republic in a mock referendum.

One of the points of contention about the King's powers is his continuing hold over the Royal Nepal Army, a force originally raised for his protection but which is now deployed in battling the Maoists. "When the King is so often encroaching upon the Constitution, why not go for a Constituent Assembly and put the monarchy on its agenda, as the Maoists are demanding," asks Dagan Nath Dhungana, a senior member of the Girija Prasad Koirala-led Nepali Congress (NC) and former Speaker.

Mr. Dhungana, who was in the team that framed the 1990 Constitution that gave the monarch a constitutional role in a multi-party democracy, says the experiment failed because "the King is not prepared to remain under the Constitution."

Role as unifier

But there are also large sections of Nepalis who still see a role for the King, provided he plays it by the book. "In a country with no common language, or religion, or ethnicity, there is a clear role for him as a unifier. But he must do this strictly within the confines of the Constitution," says Kunda Dixit, editor of the weekly, Nepali Times.

Nepal has 60 caste and ethnic groups and Nepali, the official language, is the mother tongue of only 50 per cent of its people. Although commonly described as a Hindu kingdom, its people practise varied religions. "But if he goes around saying, as he has done, that he is the King of the world's Hindus, it works against the unifying theory," Mr. Dixit says.

Many people still cherish the tradition of kingship, but at the same time, in the last dozen years, people have also got used to thinking freely, he adds. "No king can take the country back to an absolute monarchy ... His first order of business should be to restore the respect for the monarchy by leaving politics to politicians."

Prabhakar Shamsher Rana, a friend of the King and chairman emeritus of the Soaltee Group, in which the royal family has a sizeable interest, says if Nepal turns into a Republic, the country will descend into anarchy as its democratic institutions are not mature enough to take the monarchy's place.

"The presence of the monarch gives faith to the people that if other things go wrong, this institution is still there to protect them, to keep the country together," Mr. Rana says.

But the institution also needs to keep pace with the times and assist in the evolution of the country's multi-party democracy, he says. "The King can't go bicycling as royals do in some countries in Europe, but the monarchy can only survive if it plays to the aspirations of the people."

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