Wait and watch: King Gyanendra drew huge crowds when he visited a temple in Janakpur in August
He starts his day with a cup of black coffee at six in the morning. He reads the papers with considerable interest, and watches the news on television. Politicians stream in — eager to apprise him of developments. Clearly, Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah, the 66-year-old former king, is keeping a sharp eye on the impending Constituent Assembly (CA) polls in Nepal.
“He is watching everything very silently. He will speak only at the right moment,” a close aide says.
The elections, slated for November 19, have kicked up a debate in Nepal. Is the king biding his time to make a return in the coming months, seven years after Nepal decided to do away with its 239-year-old monarchy? The king’s opponents believe that’s kite flying by a section of royalists. “Wait and watch,” his supporters reply.
What’s true is that as an estimated 12.1 million voters cast their vote, the ex-king’s shadow will be looming large. “We want a constitutional monarchy back in Nepal,” Kamal Thapa, chairman of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party – Nepal (RPP-N), says. “We are not asking for absolute power for the monarchy but we want him to come back as the head of the state.”
Many in Nepal would second that. Some of Gyanendra’s recent meetings — including one held on his birthday on July 7 and another on Dashain (tika ceremony) in October — were attended by thousands of people. In July, when he distributed relief material on behalf of his daughter-in-law’s Himani Trust, there were loud cries for his return with slogans such as Raja aao, desh bachaao (Come back, King, and save the country).
There is a widespread feeling in Nepal, which has seen five Prime Ministers since the monarchy was toppled, that there has been little development in these seven years. “The construction of the east-west highway and the creation of Tribhuvan University happened earlier. Interest rates for bank deposits were also higher then,” a Gyanendra aide states.
The royalists hope to garner the votes of discontent. Though some analysts predict that no political party will get an absolute majority, royalist parties may benefit from the pro-king sentiments. Surveys indicate that the largest royalist party, RPP-N, which won only four seats in the last elections, will do considerably better this time.
Smaller parties such as the League Nepal Shanti Ekta party, Shiv Sena Nepal, Akhanda Nepal Party and Nepal Development Party have also expressed their support for a constitutional monarchy. Thirteen such fringe parties have formed an alliance called the Desbhakta Loktantrik Morcha and threaten to launch an agitation for the ex-king’s participation in issues such as unemployment, corruption and inflation. The royalists argue that if they have enough legislators, they can press for a role for the ousted king.
Clearly, these are troubled times in Nepal, where the first seed of democracy was sown in 1990 as it changed from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy. The Constitution of 1990 gave residual powers to the king to intervene and untangle a constitutional impasse. After the 2008 polls, two years after political parties abolished the constitutional monarchy, a government led by the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) took power.
The government, which ran for more than six years under an interim Constitution promulgated in 2007, was to have framed a new Constitution. The fact that it still has not done so has triggered a sense of disquiet.
“Political leaders have mostly been busy in corruption and political squabbling. So there is growing resentment against them, leading to a feeling that the monarchy was a better option,” Kathmandu-based political analyst Narayan Wagle explains.
Not surprisingly, a demand for a national referendum on the issue of monarchy is gaining ground. “If there is a referendum, three-fourths would say yes to constitutional monarchy,” senior Nepali Congress leader Laxman Ghimire stresses.
A large section in Nepal — which has an 82 per cent Hindu population — also demands that it remain a Hindu state. Under the interim Constitution, Nepal changed from a Hindu kingdom to a secular state.
If the royalists have a presence in the Assembly, they expect to push for this agenda. A poll conducted in October by a European and American poll observation group states that the RPP-N will win 142 seats on the issue of monarchy and Hinduism. A poll in June 2011 by the Kathmandu-based think tank Interdisciplinary Analysis says that 56 per cent people favour a Hindu state.
Ghimire says there was pressure from the rank and file within the Nepali Congress to keep the issue of a Hindu state on their agenda for the polls —”but the top leadership refused to do so”.
That’s because there is no love lost between the ex-king and a large section of politicians. In fact, many of the leaders of the Nepali Congress, which worked closely with the monarchy for more than five decades, have now turned their back on the monarchy. “Nepal is a democratic secular state. We will never like to take it back to the days of the royal regime by making it a Hindu kingdom,” former Prime Minister and Nepali Congress leader Sher Bahadur Deuba — who was twice removed from his post by Gyanendra — thunders.
Gyanendra, unlike his predecessors, has never been a popular figure in Nepal. When King Birendra and nine other royal members were killed inside their palace in 2001, eyebrows were raised that Gyanendra was not in the palace in Kathmandu, but away in Pokhra. When he tried to wrest absolute power in 2005 and jailed politicians and civil right activists, there were loud murmurs of dissent.
In fact, the concept of royalty doesn’t wield the same charm over people as it earlier did. Over 50 per cent of the population in Nepal is below 30 and analysts say the youth have little respect for feudal institutions.
Under such circumstances, it will not be easy for the king to make a comeback. There will always be sections supporting him, but these will be marginal ones, holds Kathmandu-based political commentator Hari Sharma. “For some people, the past is always beautiful because the future is uncertain,” he says.
Irrespective of the way the parties perform, outgoing Prime Minister and the UCPN (M) leader Baburam Bhattarai is convinced that Gyanendra will have no say in politics. “There is no way we’ll reconcile with the ex-monarch. He is certainly not the future of the country,” he says.
Gyanendra, however, continues to make his presence felt — through occasional appearances at temples and other gatherings. Some hold that he is looking for the right opportunity to make a political move. “It is natural for any dismissed monarch to try to regain some power when the opportunity arises. But he will never form a political party or contest elections because then he will be just like any other political person,” Wagle says. “Also, though his wish is that royalist parties push for a Constitutional monarchy in the Assembly, he will never ask for it openly.”
Meanwhile, the king is in the sprawling Nirmal Niwas — which his father had gifted him after he married Komal Rajya Laxmi Devi in 1970 — waiting for politics to take a turn. Some websites — including nepalinetbook.com, nepalroyal.com and nepalkoaawaz.com — and the Twitter handle Nepal _monarchy (with 991 followers) are believed to be voicing the ex-king’s concern. He reads and eats sparingly, his aides say, sticking to a simple diet of rice, dal and cooked vegetables. “But he loves to cook — especially meat balls — for his guests,” a source says.
“Gyanendra gets huge support cutting across all ethnic groups,” the former chief of the erstwhile Royal Nepalese Army, Pyar Jung Thapa, says. “He is seen as the symbol of national integrity as opposed to political parties who want to create differences among ethnic groups.”
Staunch critics such as S.D. Muni, an Indian expert on south Asian issues, dismiss the indicators of the ex-king’s popularity. “People just love to watch the cavalcade that comes along with him. He is the most irrelevant factor in Nepal politics,” Muni says. “He might be a kingmaker if he plays his political cards well, but by now, he must reconcile to the fact that he cannot be the king,” Nepalese journalist Kunda Dixit adds.
The monarchy, Sharma stresses, has always ruled the country by force — which few will forget. “And there will always be teething problems with political parties for a nation in transition,” he says. And as former diehard royalist Surya Bahadur Thapa, chairman of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party, puts it, “There is no looking back.”
Laxman Ghimire, Nepali Congress
Kamal Thapa, RPP-N
Pyar Jung Thapa, former chief of Royal Nepalese Army
Dipak Gyawali, former water resources minister
Sher Bahadur Deuba, Nepali Congress
Baburam Bhattarai, outgoing Prime Minister, UCPN (M)
Surya Bahadur Thapa, RPP
Mohan Baidya, CPN (M)
( A version of this story appeared in The Telegraph on November 17, 2003)