Archive for November 2013

As Nepal heads into elections, is it time for deposed King Gyanendra to make a comeback as the head of a constitutional monarchy?

  • 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, and — 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.”

Who’s who

Leading royalists

Laxman Ghimire, Nepali Congress
Kamal Thapa, RPP-N
Pyar Jung Thapa, former chief of Royal Nepalese Army
Dipak Gyawali, former water resources minister

Prominent critics 

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)

Badminton player Jwala Gutta has just won a match. Not in a tournament, but in an ugly controversy that has been playing in the court of the Badminton Association of India (BAI). After almost two months, Gutta will be back wielding a racquet in an international match. And she’s raring to go.

“Nobody can stop me from playing. I will be play in the Bitburger Open in Germany,” she says. The BAI, which is locked in a battle with her, hasn’t sent her name as an entrant from India yet, but Gutta says she is going to sponsor her own trip.

The fight with the BAI, clearly, is not over. Its disciplinary committee recently imposed a life ban on the gold medallist of the 2010 Commonwealth Games for allegedly delaying a match in the Indian Badminton League (IBL) in August. She moved the Delhi High Court challenging the ban. The court said she could play.

“Why this life ban,” asks a disgruntled Gutta, 30. “I had neither doped nor fixed a match.”

Gutta, who plays for the Petroleum Sports Promotion Board, met petroleum minister Veerappa Moily recently to garner support. “He has been following my case. He’ll write to the association,” she says with confidence. (Since the interview, the petroleum minister has sent a strongly worded letter to the sports minister on the issue.)

We are in a car that is heading towards the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, from where she is to catch a flight to Hyderabad. The captain of an IBL team, Krrish Delhi Smashers, relates the events that led to her ban. She’d objected when a member of another team, Banga Beats, was replaced because of an injury at the last moment. This altercation led to the match between the two teams being delayed. And BAI said that led to revenue losses.

Gutta asserts that she had to voice the concern of her team. “I was the icon player of the team. My owners told me that what had happened was wrong and they would not allow it. As captain, they asked me to take up the issue. Also, I have a signed letter from my team saying this was a collective decision.”

Her relations with the IBL have been fraught from day one. Before the tournament started, she had criticised the organisers for slashing her base price. “I had signed my contract for US $50,000 but they reduced it to US $25,000. I felt cheated.”

Though Gutta is careful not to say a word against the owners of her team or the corporate franchises associated with the IBL, she is open in her criticism of national coach Pullela Gopichand. “There is an IBL governing council consisting of senior badminton players, including Gopichand. If the corporate sectors are doing wrong, why didn’t Gopi object,” she asks. “He didn’t say a word in my support.”

It’s an open secret that Gopichand and Gutta don’t see eye to eye. Gutta has often questioned how the national coach could be allowed to run a private training school, the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy, in Hyderabad.

“All badminton players except Ashwini Ponnappa and I have been trained in his academy. He tries to dictate terms to players like us who have come up on our own. But he will always stand for those who belong to his academy,” she maintains.

Among those trained by Gopichand is Olympic bronze medallist Saina Nehwal. Is Gutta suggesting that the coach would have come out in Nehwal’s support had she had been in her (Gutta’s) position?

“She would have never been in my position,” Gutta retorts. She says that neither would Nehwal have been “victimised” by the association, nor would she have spoken out. “She would have reacted differently. But I can’t keep my mouth shut.”

Gutta’s differences with Nehwal have often been a subject of discussion in badminton circles. What is the animosity all about?

“You can ask anyone — I am a very friendly person. But friendship cannot be one-sided. There has to be a response from the other side too,” she replies.

Unlike Nehwal, who is a star of Gopichand’s academy, Gutta followed a different route to stardom. She started playing badminton from the age of four, encouraged by her Telugu-speaking father, a clerk in the Reserve Bank of India, and her mother, a pharmaceuticals exporter of Chinese descent. Trained by S.M. Arif, Gutta started as a singles player and won the national junior championships in 2000 when she was 17. Arif later suggested that she play doubles.

Known for being extremely competitive, her peers say she can also be unpredictable. There are days when she is extremely friendly, and days when she barely speaks with anyone. She wants to take charge of a game and often ends up dominating her partners.

She had earlier fallen out with her partner, Shruti Kurien-Kanetkar. Later, she had a rift with Ponnappa. The tournament partners broke up after the 2012 London Olympics but have come together again. Gutta says she will partner Ponnappa in the coming international tournaments.

But her co-players also agree that Gutta has the strength to speak her mind. “I would never say things to please others,” she stresses.

Calm and focused on the field, she partnered with Ponnappa and won a gold medal in the women’s doubles at the Commonwealth Games 2010 — the first gold medal that India won in the women’s double events in the Games. The same year, Gutta and Ponnappa were the first Indian women’s doubles pair to win a bronze medal in the badminton world championship. She played women’s doubles as well as mixed doubles at the 2012 London Olympics.

She complains that the badminton association takes the credit for the victories but does little for sportspersons. “It gets funding from the government because of our performance but doesn’t spend a penny on players,” Gutta, who ranks 235th in the world, says.

Dressed in a blue kurta and white churidaar, the six-footer has a fashionable air. She doesn’t have the dishevelled look that one tends to associate with sportspersons. On the contrary, her designer glasses and purse give her a stylish look, enhanced by her spotless skin and shining hair. Gutta has even walked the ramp on a few occasions, and performed an “item number” in the Telugu film Gunde Jaari Gallanthayyinde.

The shuttler, however, refuses to call it an item number. “It was a special song because the song had my name in it. Also, the movie was a superhit.” In the song, she is widely remembered for wearing a short blue dress. “People started calling me the girl with the golden legs,” she says with a laugh.

Her critics, however, hold that her interest in fashion and films has affected her game. Her world ranking was earlier six. But Gutta scoffs at the criticism.

“After giving 20 years to the sport, what’s wrong in being seen in advertisements or fashion shows,” she asks.

In these 20 years, Gutta has built a fortune for herself. From her rented house in Begumpet, she moved to a bungalow in the posh Banjara Hills in Hyderabad. But she insists that it has not been an easy road to success. “There was a time when my father’s entire salary of Rs 5,000 was spent on house rent. My father would have been promoted if he had taken transfers out of Hyderabad but he didn’t do so because that would have meant the end of my career in badminton,” she says.

Gutta is now the proud owner of five cars, including an SUV Volvo. What about the BMW that the media speculated had been gifted to her by cricketer-turned-parliamentarian Mohammed Azharuddin?

“I used to have a BMW. I have five cars in my house. Now will you tell me that all these have been gifted? This is ridiculous,” she says with a shrug.

But didn’t she share a special relationship with the celebrated cricketer and captain in 2010?

“The news is already dead and buried 100 feet down,” she says smilingly. “I know a lot of cricketers. I am friends with everybody. There is nothing wrong in being friends.”

It was around then that her marriage with Arjuna awardee and ace badminton player Chetan Anand started unravelling. The two divorced in 2011, and Gutta says she has moved on. “Divorce is part of life. Life doesn’t end with that one event.”

This is an off-the-court lesson that she has learnt. On the court, she’s learnt to be patient, she says. “I have learnt that it’s never all bad. I am very positive,” Gutta adds.

That’s called the sportswoman spirit.

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