The deaths of King Birendra and his heir-apparent, Dipendra, in the aftermath of June 1 ‘accidental’ shoot-out mark the end of an era of direct succession of kingship established by the founder of modern Nepal, King Prithvi Narayan Shah in the beginning of the 18th century. The line of succession has now been shifted from the son to brother. Prince Gyanendra has become the 13th King of Nepal. Many of Nepal’s 23 million people still revere the king as an incarnation of Hindu god, Vishnu, and the Hindu-Buddhist faith is that monarchy mediates the material and spiritual power that establishes its authority and legitimacy in the Nepali society.
Many political symbols are attached to the institution of monarchy. For example, it is regarded as a symbol of national unity and its ideological glue – nationalism – is the raison d’etre of modern nation-state. The monarch is also perceived as a lord having spiritual and temporal authority to protect the sacredness of Nepal Mandala, the universe of Nepal. It is considered to exist for the “Reasons of State” where people as citizens sustain their private and public life in social existence- peace, amity and cooperation.
The theory that upholds the belief that “King does no wrong” is embedded in its non-partisan formation. The practice of worshipping monarchy thus springs from the notion that King performs Rajdharma (statecraft) to regulate society, observes the Sanatan Dharma (the eternal religion), is of virtuous conduct, dispenses justice and safeguards the motherland from external intrusion. Popular expression like “Go to Gorkha for justice” captures the judicious tradition of the Nepali monarch in this historical aphorism.
The founder of the Shah dynasty, King Ram Shah, established rule of law and social justice in the hills of Nepal at a time when many parts of the world were in a Hobbesian state of nature. He did not only solve the problems of anarchy and chaos but had some conception of a higher law than his self-will, a will to individualise himself through the trajectory of history.
King Prithvi Narayan Shah, the founder of present-day Nepal, rediscovered the roots of native virtues and introduced a vision of progress, patriotism and participation of diverse people in the social, economic and political construction of the nation-state through the institutionalisation of monarchical institutions, system of rights for the people and their places in society. The spread of nationalism and the articulation of coherent geopolitical worldview he defined latter became rallying points for his successors to marshal the support of people on behalf of the goals of modern state.
The identification of monarchy with social physics of the nation moulded by Hindu-Buddhist mores proved itself to be the most resilient institution that derived its legitimacy from the act of national unification, dharma-mediated statecraft and a radiator of native culture. In so doing, monarchy safely adapted to the Western ideology of Enlightenment -rationalism, modernity and aspiration of the age.
Two kinds of reason have thus been combined to nourish the institutions of monarchy. The standardisation of administrative, legal and economic practices, spread of Nepali language, literature and culture and art and tradition, focus on development tours to several places and construction of shrines and symbols around the country were designed to construct the “national identity”. The unifier had an ardent belief that freedom of people rests on the freedom of the State – a State capable of building its own national culture and civilisation upon the materiality of the territory it possesses.
In the 1940s, it was King Tribhuvan who provided guidance to the then political parties and leaders in their effort to take the country out of the clutches of autocratic Rana rulers. The Rana regime had kept the people politically docile up until that time. Monarchy’s help to resolve the conflicts between aristocracy and democracy in favour of the latter is a recorded fact. In other words, it sought to create virtuous environment for the achievement of common good.
In a delicate geopolitics of the nation, symbols were transformed into substantive legitimacy to the popular movement aspiring for democracy. His feat was by no means small as he articulated the need for collective national consciousness for holding the State and society together under constitutional bounds. The essential differentiation between politics and morality, which the then political leaders failed to make clear, widened the gulf between law and politics.
The institution of monarchy was, therefore, particularly important when political institution building was critically required to stipulate the expected behaviour of all forces but very difficult to achieve. A salient example can be traced from the monarch’s efforts, matching the European models, of protecting the national heritage and projecting the identity of Nepal abroad despite immense pressure for conformity and uniformity.
Monarchy’s ability to transcend “partisan politics” not only set itself above many institutions of governance but also helped achieve a “single national community” as opposed to the ideology of identity politics and caveman feelings of mutual hate. Evidently, monarchy seems to have known that a purely utopian approach to the problem of national community offers little hope of escape from the impending anarchy.
Monarchy often played the role of a safety valve of society against the threat of imperialism and native radicalism without being socially conservative in its ideology. This is the reason social change in Nepal often occurred in a spiral manner. Yet, the geniuses of monarchs are full of dramatic contrasts based on the individual personality of kings: some were powerful and assertive, while others were mere figureheads. Quite a few of them were captive of local aristocracy and some even upheld an image of constitutional monarch.
A similar contrast is also found at the elite and mass level. For example, both the groups do not fully grasp the vision of democracy and used constitutional interpretations for their own interests. Here, too, the role of monarch remained salient in facilitating the political transition along democratic lines. Monarchy is regarded as an element of continuity, a continuity of Nepali history, society, institution and the statehood. And, it percolated institutional memory of managing political order at a time of the crisis in civic and political institutions. Several institutional and policy innovations underway since the 1950s marked a point that monarchy also served as a catalyst for social and political reforms. Late king Birendra can be considered as a key force in himself for the restoration of democracy, human rights and social justice. During his reign, Nepalis found their sovereignty in a unity between political life and the institution of monarchy.
How does one overcome increasing democratic deficit and the crisis in public institutions now? It is obviously something that cannot be answered in a straightforward way. One can defend the argument for constitutionalisation of the state, the market and civil society. This is the way to overcome an element of parochialism in Nepali politics which continues to operate as a counter force against the achievement of a democratic state and, in the process, losing the moral and constitutional checks the institution of monarchy provided until recently.
The other is by establishing the credibility of democratic life. Who can act as a conscience-keeper of the nation when the institution of monarchy is drastically weakened by an ordeal as the present one while national political parties and elites are sharply divided along geopolitical lines lacking an anchor and purposive direction? The springs of restless democratic aspirations are spiraling the source of rebellion in all aspects of national life. A collective political effort alone can help solve the growing crisis of governability arising out of pervasive poverty, political drift and Maoist insurgency and thereby restore the normalcy in public life.
Simultaneously, monarchy as a seat of statesmanship should seek to fulfil the expectations attached to Rajdharma. Late King Birendra proved an illustrious monarch. King Gyanendra, it is hoped, will follow the glorious tradition his ancestors had set. (The author is professor of political science at Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu)