Dr Sukhdev Shah, The University of the South Pacific
Public protests, demonstrations, and defiance have shown people’s zeal for seeing Nepal becoming a republic. If this happens, Nepal and its people will truly be liberated—peacefully—from the renegade politicians as well as from the vestiges of feudal power represented by monarchy.
With the hindsight of historical experience, the King’s backing down– in the face of imminent danger posed by last month’s massive demonstrations–may just be a tactical move to buy time to regroup and take back whatever he has lost—absolute authority over the use of state power. For one thing, the 100,000-man strong Army is his—sort of King’s personal bodyguard, not a National Army, much less a People’s Army. And throughout the ups and downs of the monarchy’s restoration in 1951, Army has been fanatically loyal to the King and there is no indication that this will not remain so—whatever is being read of the restoration of people’s power.
And, therefore, as long as the institution of Army exists in its current form, monarchy will remain venomous. It will be a danger to democracy and obstacle to modernization efforts. This is because Nepal’s monarchy, at its core, has been–and remains–a feudal, even a pre-feudal, institution. Given this orientation and a stubborn resistance to change, monarchy will be a barrier to progress of all types—individual freedom, civil liberties, progressive politics, economic modernization.
Political history of Nepal, beginning with the ascendance of The Shah Dynasty in the late 1760s, presents a sorry tale of state misdeeds peppered with conspiracies, feuds, massacres, accumulation of personal wealth by the ruling class at the expense of everyone else. This modus operandi may have softened at times in the face of popular uprisings and political realignments, but Palace’s zeal to govern–and govern absolutely—never completely died out.
The outlook is that the country will remain bogged down in a perpetual turmoil occasioned by the King ruling directly or him striking a deal to share power with politicians who, however, have proven, time and again, to be gutless and incompetent, unable to chart a new direction for the country by isolating or doing away with the monarchy.
Long-term stability, and durable peace, in the country would then require that monarchy gets abolished outright and Nepal is made a republic. Or, at the least–and mainly for ensuring an orderly transition–monarchy is sized-down, in a way that it exists only for the good of the country, and also that the cost of upkeep is fully justified by its value-added to the economy, in a way that it remains no more than a tourist attraction, much like in Britain.
Such downsizing can be achieved in a number of ways but its main features can be easily schemed out, something like the following:
First, abolish the Royal Army, which has been a larger threat to democracy and people’s freedom than a King without the Army. Further, Nepal spends a huge amount of its scarce resource—probably up half a billion dollars–on maintenance and upkeep of the Army and its infrastructure. This much money, diverted to improving social and physical infrastructure, can add, at least, a couple of percentage points to economic growth.
Second, change the King’s residence from his current Palace to some remote area of Kathmandu, with no more than a dozen bodyguards, compared with 6,000 soldiers presently guarding his Palace. This will be another of the huge money-savers from a down-sized monarchy. Reportedly, up to 100 million dollars is being spent on keeping the Royal family in style, including the generous payouts to sub-royalties and courtiers. This will again save a bundle of cash for this impoverished country—for use in making lives more livable for millions of people who live on one-millionth of King’s income.
Third, convert the Royal Palace into a public museum—for the people to see who is in command, not the paper sovereignty that they have been told since 1990 they enjoy.
Fourth, nationalize most of King’s business properties, starting with 2 or 3 five-star hotels he owns in Kathmandu. These assets are essentially state properties financed by NIDC from foreign loans now serviced using taxpayers’ money.
Fifth, change the National Anthem, which sings only of the King and his glory, and nothing of Nepal and its people.
Sixth, make it illegal for King’s—or any of Royal family’s—pictures to be displayed anywhere in the country–in public places or private residences. Also, the system of King administering oath to public officials be discontinued and replaced by Chief Justice of The Supreme Court doing this job instead. It is ridiculous that, after so much of humiliation and mud thrown on King Gyanendra during last month’s demonstrations, GP Koirala did not blink a bit taking oath read by the King.
Seventh, change the names of all public institutions, infrastructure, towns and squares bearing royal names, and remove all statues of the royalties. These symbols of royal dignity and power represent force and coercion, not the expression of public gratitude for monarchy’s good deeds.
Eighth, put on trial all prominent politicians of the Panchayat era, as well as all those who volunteered to serve King’s Government following his take-over of the Government in February 2005. It is amazing that none of the panchayat stalwarts known for human rights abuses, misuse of power, and massive corruption were indicted for their actions after the collapse of panchayat in 1990, many of whom again conspired with the monarchy to push democracy to the brink.
Ninth, do away with government public media—Gorkha Patra, Rising Nepal, Radio Nepal, Nepal TV—which have fanatically and unabashedly praised the King and the God-like authority he commands–contrary to what the public, deep-down, have come to believe–that the royal power represents—then and now—the worst of a feudal system whose greatness gets measured by the amount of fear it generates among the masses and how thoroughly it is able to exploit and intimidate them.
And tenth, let the new constitution provide that the present King will be the last King of Nepal, and Monarchy will end when he abdicates or dies. There will then be sufficient time for Prince Paras to get some education and find a job.
The King, and his royal cohorts, should consider the downsizing option laid out above still a bargain, given the choices now they face—the prospect not only of losing their position and power but also their heads. The US Ambassador to Nepal, Mr. Moriarty, did not exaggerate a bit by saying, toward the end of the showdown between protestors and King’s security forces, that the King will soon face a situation when he will have to leave the country clinging to the wheel of a departing helicopter!
So, from all accounts, King has little room left to maneuver and will have to come to terms with people’s sentiments—to downsize the monarchy or see that Nepal becomes a Republic.
However, in view of the historical experience, threat to this changeover will not be from the King—at least not for a considerable while—but from the stalwarts of democracy—leaders of the mainstream parties, comprising Nepali Congress and, to some extent, United Marxist-Leninist (UML)–the reformed communist group. From their hasty compromise with The Palace—not forcing the King to include in royal proclamation a fixed date for Constituent Assembly election with power to decide on monarchy’s future—it appears that they are afraid of Maoists’ popularity.
This need not be surprising. Maoists have fought a running battle with the royalist forces for the past ten years, with unambiguous commitment to republicanism. They were the first group of regime’s opponents to openly challenge the royal power and condemn it to be an epitome of feudalism and autocracy. They very rightly said then that people’s welfare was least on King’s mind and all he wanted was to run Nepal as a private enterprise.
On the contrary, the so-called democratic parties fighting and winning elections after the restoration of democracy in 1990, had vied for royal favor to help suppress opponents—other parties–to the extent that many of the pillars of panchayat autocracy were re-instated and some even appointed to high positions in the new democratic regime. And much less these leaders opted to challenge King’s control of the Army, which they very well knew was there to keep a lease on democracy and make its leaders bent on their knees.
It is miraculous that the same group of ineffectual and visionless leaders is again in command, which, however, does not seem to have happened by default but by design. These leaders are more afraid of the Maoists than of the King and his Army. They know that in any popular contest, like for The Constituent Assembly election, Maoists would draw more votes than they would, which would enable the Maoists to bring a peaceful revolution to Nepal by making it a republican state. These leaders do not want to take that risk and, therefore, they feel safer with the King and the status quo he represents.
If anything the last month’ public protests, demonstrations, and defiance have shown is the people’s zeal for seeing Nepal becoming a republic. If this happens, Maoists will call the tunes, with traditional politicians of all types and shades retiring into the dust-bean of history. Nepal and its people will truly be liberated—peacefully—from the renegade politicians as well as from the vestiges of feudal power represented by monarchy.