Is the white elephant, in the form of monarchy, worth keeping in Nepal?
Sunday 23 April 2006
Friday night’s talk – after the royal proclamation – was mainly about king Gyanendra trying to split the SPA-Maoist alliance by offering the post of PM to the SPA. However, people seemed to have realised his ploy as soon as his speech ended. We heard about the overnight demonstrations in Kathmandu and in a number of districts and cities outside Kathmandu – most notably those in Butwal area – rejecting palace’s offer. SPA leaders, after meeting on Saturday morning, had no choice but to follow the will of the public and they finally rejected palace’s offer officially late on Saturday morning. So it seems we’ll be seeing more demonstrations in days to come and it also seems Nepal is heading towards being a republic and not stay as a kingdom. The hot topic today in most of the online discussions, as well as in radio forums, has been whether or not we Nepalese will be better off keeping the white elephant in the form of monarchy – especially the current incarnation. So is this white elephant worth keeping? As a layman in my own country’s politics, I think this question should consider three main aspects of our society, namely economic, political, and cultural. Considering the pros and cons of keeping monarchy with regards to these aspects of our society should help us answer this question.
The economics of monarchy
This has to be the easiest point to consider. The task is simply to weigh the economic costs and benefits of having a monarchy in Nepal. Let us first consider the benefits – is there any economic benefits that our monarchy bring to the country? I am having as hard a time in saying YES as working on my other academic papers during these demonstrations in Nepal, seriously. We all know there is no direct income that monarchy brings to the treasury, in fact the treasury loses out as they (the monarch and his family) don’t even pay taxes. Now, if we look at the British monarchy, they bring in direct and indirect income from tourism, such as by opening up their palaces to the public. In Nepal, the Shah dynasty does not have much to show really in terms of its legacy, but for a few exceptions like the palaces of Prithvi Narayan Shah (the legacy issue will be discussed more in cultural aspects of monarchy below). We very well know that the legacy of the Mallas and Lichchhivis – the durbar squares in Kathmandu valley and art/architecture in the towns and villages in and around Kathmandu valley – are still the major attractions to the visitors of our country, and thus benefit our economy. If given choice, which would you visit – old palaces in these durbar square or the Narayanhiti?
Any hope that the monarchy would bring economic benefits to the country must have extinguished especially during king Gyanendra’s reign. The unceremonious circumstances in which he became monarch in 2001, his political meandering during these five years of his reign – especially the last 15 months or so – have brought about more suffering (politically as well as economically) to Nepalese people than any of his predecessors in about 250 years of Shah dynasty. Just looking at the official budget for the year 2005/06 of over 350 million rupees (US$ 5 million at $1=70 rupees rate) for the king and the royal palace affairs, it becomes clear what an elephant we are keeping here. For a country where nearly half the population still live below poverty line (using a dollar a day criteria of the World Bank), and where average per capita income still hovers around $200, that amount has to be nothing but a staggering waste of national treasury given virtually no economic benefits that this monarchy brings. The amount above is just an official budget however. We just have to look at king Gyanendra and his family’s lavish lifestyle, which is fully funded by the national treasury, to see the actual extent of costs to the people.
… a staggering Rs 50 billion [h]as been paid out from state coffers to fund purchases of royal limousines, organising royal weddings, handing stashes of cash to loyal royals and large mysterious payoffs to the Home and Defence Ministries. A detailed list of dates and amounts paid shows billions transferred from budget account heads to Contingency and Miscellaneous and then slipped across.
How clearer can it get as to what the king is up to during these few years of his reign? Is he really trying to address people’s suffering OR pile more misery on them by bankrupting the national treasury? If the above quote is not enough, some more details of misappropriation of the national treasury below should surely address any lingering doubts on how costly it really is to keep this monarchy.
On the week when victims of the Myaglung fire were sent back empty handed in January 2003 because of “lack of budget” a sum of Rs 130.5 million from a disaster relief budgetline was transferred to another account and then sent to the palace. Rs 70.9 million from the ‘Integrated Development’ account was moved to Miscellaneous over a period of four days last month. In July 2002, Rs 20 million was transferred with unusual haste from a standard budgetline to a contingency account within four days of the national budget being passed and then used to purchase of two bullteproof Jaguars.
So, aren’t Nepal and Nepalese people better off economically by getting rid of the monarchy than by keeping it? If the above points are to go by, there could only be one answer and that is – Nepal and Nepalese people are better off economically without the monarchy than with it.
The politics of monarchy
You must be thinking I must have made some mistake with the heading “politics of monarchy”, you must be thinking “monarchs don’t get involved in politics”. Oh yes they do, they do in Nepal if you didn’t know already! Of course in this 21st century it is hard to find monarchy in any form – constitutional or ceremonial let alone active monarchs. However, by the grace of god or his curse, we Nepalese have got an “active” monarch, so much active that he has for the past 15 months suspended political and press freedoms, and has been trying to “rule” over his “subjects” – we Nepalese people – by any means he could. Okay, enough for the sarcasm – now back to the serious business. The question here is – does Nepalese politics need a monarch(/monarchy)?
The question is as complex to tackle as simple it looks. First, let us remind that politics, especially democratic politics has to be “by the people, for the people”. If anyone wants to be active in politics, he/she has to be accountable to the people – especially to hold executive political posts, he/she has to be elected by the people. Even at this day and age, constitutional or ceremonial monarchy, with executive power lying at the hands of elected representatives, would definitely have been acceptable to Nepalese people. The people accepted constitutional monarchy after the democratic movement of 1990, and the late King Birendra was happy to stay as a constitutional monarch, leaving day-to-day running of the country to the elected politicians. Even though there were power struggles between political parties after 1990, including some corruption, we have to bear in mind that our democratic system was still in its infancy and probably the leaders didn’t have much clue as to what “being accountable to their constituents” meant. They would definitely have understood after fighting one or two elections, when people could have rewarded accountable representatives and punished those who were corrupt and unaccountable to their constituents. If I remember correctly that was exactly what happened in the second general election when the people punished Nepali Congress party by taking away their majority for what they had done during the three years of their majority government from 2048 to 2051. Wasn’t that the sign of a maturing democracy even at its infancy? I believe it was.
However, the 2001 royal palace massacre changed all that. I wouldn’t like to go into the details of the massacre itself, but what became clear after Gyanendra became king under those unceremonious circumstances is that he was not prepared to stay just as a constitutional monarch. By clearly stating that he wanted to play an “active” role in Nepali politics, he crossed the boundaries of what a constitutional monarch could/couldn’t do. Moreover, by appointing and sacking Prime Ministers at will by abusing certain sections of the 1990 constitution, he has not only brought about great crisis in Nepalese politics but also a great suffering to the Nepalese people. The final straw was the assumption of the executive powers and suspension of political and press freedoms in February 2005 in the name of bringing peace in Nepal by crushing the Maoist rebellion. After 15 months of that takeover, however, none of the promises that he made have been achieved. Neither the peace has prevailed in the country nor has he been able to crush the Maoist rebellion. The situation has clearly got worse and the spill over of the unstable political situation can be felt in all other sectors, most notably that in the economy.
Now, why should people believe that a monarch (who doesn’t have to get elected) would act in their best interest, when he (the monarch) very well knows that the people cannot make him accountable? The people have no power to vote him out of his office, except by force like that of the French revolution just over a couple of centuries ago. Unless the person in power is accountable to his/her constituents and knows that power can be taken away easily, such as by voting, there won’t be any incentives for him/her to be accountable and act in the greater interest of his/her constituents. In case of Nepal, Gyanendra became king just because he happens to born in Shah dynasty and more importantly he somehow survived the massacre that wiped out King Birendra and his entire family. Now, we wouldn’t be having this debate if he had just stayed a constitutional monarch as his brother King Birendra did. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened and his ambition of playing an “active” political role, his fantasy politics and his abuse of 1990 constitution time and again has eroded any trust that people had in him. Moreover, since he does not need to be accountable to the people, why would he care if the people trust his actions anyway?
Monarchists argue that the monarchs are/have been an unifying force in our country’s politics (BUT also see the section below – the culture of monarchy – on this point). May be a proper constitutional monarch like King Birendra had been a unifying force in our country’s politics – especially by providing guidance to the elected political representatives that held power BUT never interfering on what they did. However, there is no evidence to believe that the current monarch, king Gyanendra has been an unifying force in our country’s politics – in fact, the opposite. By his senseless political meandering, he has probably created more political divisions in the country than unification. “Divide and Rule” seems to be the weapon of all autocratic monarchs if we look at the history of monarchy, not only in Nepal but in other countries as well. Same is true in case of king Gyanendra – time and again he has tried to create divisions within our society, within political alliances, and even within political parties. Our country is more divided than ever in these last five years of king Gyanendra’s reign. So how can we believe in the monarchy being an unifying force?
Now, if we do need an unifying force in our country’s politics, a figurehead to look up to, someone who could provide guidance to the political leaders in power (but not interfere), then who better to look to than our own statesmen like Ganeshman, Pushpalal, BP or Manmohan. True they are all DEAD, but if you really want names of those living who could hold similar position in our country’s politics then why not turn to Daman Nath Dhungana, Padma Ratna Tuladhar or even our new hero of non-violence movement – Prof. Krishna Khanal? We need statesmen who provide guidance rather than monarchs who interfere in politics without being accountable to the people. If king Gyanendra would really like to “work for the benefit of ordinary Nepali”, why doesn’t he “take off his crown and fight election with other politicians” as late Madan Bhandari would have put it. He could then have as active role in politics as he would like.
So, what is the verdict then? I would say if the constitutional monarchs in our country had kept themselves true to their constitutional role, there is no denying that the Nepalese people would have embraced them even when they really are white elephants economically. Just looking at the support King Birendra and even Prince Dipendra had (remember massive sense of loss, grief and the shaved heads when they died?), we can safely say that Nepali people were very fond of their monarchs. They trusted them to be true to their roles and saw them as “unifying figures” in Nepalese politics. However, the situation has changed drastically since that fateful event in 2001. Not only was there a sense of anger during the present king Gyanendra’s coronation under those unceremonious circumstances but there also was a sense of suspicion on what really happened that day in the palace, as King Birendra’s family was hastily cremated without proper autopsy or any criminal investigation. To add salt to the wound, Prince Dipendra’s body was cremated without proper funeral procession. However, even after becoming king under those circumstances, ever forgiving Nepalese public were slowly showing support to king Gyanendra and were even beginning to accept him as a figurehead in the country’s politics in his constitutional role. This monarch wouldn’t have it however, and after his actions during the past few years of his reign, especially during the last 15 months, any trust that people had on him has eroded irreparably. There seems to be no way back now than to opt for a monarchy-less political system in Nepal. As I said before, we need a clean statesman who can be a figurehead in Nepali politics, an unifying figure if you will, and not the monarch who interferes in the politics without being accountable to the people.
The culture of monarchy
What answer do you get/expect to get if you ask a British or other European who has a constitutional or ceremonial monarchy in their country – “what has your monarchy given you?”? The first thing I get from them is the sense of pride they have in their royal institution and their tradition. They (most of them anyway) seem very proud to have a father(/mother?)-of-the-nation like figure in their country who they could look up to, like a model-family, role model for the people to follow. I have to admit this is more so with regards to the Dutch and the Nordic royal family than the British. Nevertheless, the British royal family never ceases to amuse its people – like Hollywood celebrities. Anyway, coming back to the point – our own monarchy – are we proud of our monarch? Do we accept him (its always him in case of Nepal sadly!) as a father-of-the-nation figure who unites our multiethnic, multi-religious, multicultural society? Are we proud in the culture of our monarchy?
There is no doubt we Nepalese are very proud of our society where there is so much diversity and where there is so much richness in culture, heritage and tradition. But, has monarchy brought any additional value to our already rich culture? Do we have a culture of monarchy that we can be proud of, and that is worth hanging on to? Personally, I think the monarchy in our country, especially of late, hasn’t been that of a symbol of unity among diverse culture, heritage and tradition. Perhaps it wasn’t the same when King Birendra was alive, but even then this issue of monarch/y being a symbol of unity among diverse cultures is questionable. I find it hard to go along with monarchists’ viewpoint that without monarchy our society will just disintegrate into ethnic lines. How do we know? We have not seen our society disintegrating.
True, we haven’t had in our country’s history not have a monarch BUT over the course of this history, especially during the periods of absolute monarchy, weren’t the Shahs’ and the Ranas’ ruling us by dividing our societies rather than by uniting us? (remember “Divide & Rule” principle?). It was true during a century of Rana autocracy (with puppet Shah monarchy), it was true again during three decades of autocratic Panchyat regime under the Shahs, and except for a decade after the 1990 revolution (during constitutional monarchy of King Birendra), it has been true during Gyanendra Shah’s autocratic regime. The alienation of indigenous people, both from the hills and the Terai was/has been rife during these autocratic regimes. Even a few decades ago, a Madhesi (a person from Terai) was now allowed to serve in the “royal” army. How can that be a symbol of unity?
The strength of a culture/tradition can be seen from the legacy it leaves for the future generations. What legacy, if any, has Shah dynasty left for us, for our future generations? Arguably, Prithvi Narayan Shah was the most important monarch of Shah dynasty, who with the help of his brother and some able generals created a “unified” country – Nepal. Other than the legacy of King Prithvi Narayan, there isn’t much to talk about when it comes to legacies of other Shah kings. Tribhuvan had some role to play in overthrowing the autocratic Ranas but was he doing it for the greater interest of the people or for his throne? There were martyrs, such as Gangalal and Dharma Bhakta, however, who were definitely fighting against the Ranas for the greater interest of the people. King Mahendra turned out to be another autocrat, whose legacy – the “partyless” Panchyat – King Birendra took over for another 18 years before bowing out to the democratic forces in 1990. King Birendra did stay on as a constitutional monarch, however, with massively reduced power and never during the course of his 10-year-reign after the restoration of democracy in 1990 did he interfere in the democratic politics. Probably, that is why there was such an outpour of public grief when he and his entire family were massacred in 2001, and probably the reason why Nepalese people still remember him fondly. Unfortunately, in his five-year reign after the royal palace massacre, king Gyanendra has probably eroded the little good legacy left by his predecessors.
Talking about the legacy left by the monarchs in Nepal, perhaps we should look to an earlier era – that of the Mallas. The Mallas who ruled in and around the Kathmandu valley have left us with a rich cultural and traditional heritage, especially to the Newar communities who form a majority in the valley and in the adjoining the cities. They have not only left monuments that are listed as world heritage sites but also the legacy of the kings such as one benevolent king who used to keep watch over his people from the window of the tallest building in his durbar square to make sure that food was being cooked in every home (the smoke coming from the roof-tops told him whether or not a cooking fire was on in every house)! No wonder the Malla period is considered the Golden Age in the history of Nepal, especially that of the Kathmandu valley. Even today, thousands of visitors flock to these durbar squares to marvel at those legacies, BUT not to the Narayanhiti or the Singh Durbar. It is probably safe to say that the culture of monarchy, if there was any, and the legacy of the Shah dynasty has not been so great for an ordinary Nepalese to be proud of, except of course those of a few monarchs like King Prithvi Narayan.
The verdict again? In my opinion, the Shah monarchs haven’t really been a symbol of unity as the monarchists claim them to be. Of late, and especially at times of autocratic regimes, they have been more of a symbol of division than that of unity. Culturally, we had richer monarchies like the Mallas and the Lichchhivis, which have left richer tradition and heritage to the Nepali people, especially to those indigenous to the Kathmandu valley and the surrounding cities. Are we proud to have monarchy as it stands now? Again, personally I am not – especially after what happened in the royal palace in 2001. I think, we should be proud of the monarchs like King Prithvi for creating an politically unified Nepal, King Birendra for at least giving up his power and staying within his constitutional rule until his tragic death (or murder?). However, monarchs like Gyanendra who have not only brought about great suffering to the Nepalese people but also used brutal force against them to stay in power, have brought shame not only to themselves but also to the institution of monarchy. It is time we put an end to this part of our “culture” and “the culture of monarchy” and move on.
Following the events unfolding back home in Nepal for the past two weeks or so from this alien land, I have become increasingly “concerned” (as one blogger remarked, we are only good at being “concerned” and not acting on it!) not only about my family who live there but also about the country I was born and I grew up in. Having grown up “under” a monarch, in the beautiful Himalayan kingdom, I also used to think that our society (and nation) wouldn’t be complete without a monarchy. I also used to look at our monarchs as the symbol of unity in our multiethnic, multi-religious, multicultural land. However, the events of these past two weeks have forced me to analyse the role of monarchy in Nepal in the cold light of day, and this essay is the product of my analysis. The increasing stubbornness, and senseless political meandering of king Gyanendra, coupled with his current acts of using brutal force against the freedom loving (and peace seeking) people of Nepal might have swayed me to being an anti-monarchist, BUT I have tried to look at the role of monarchy and whether it has brought/ is likely to bring any benefits to an ordinary Nepalese from economic, political and cultural aspects as best I can (considering my lack of knowledge in the politics of my own country!). From all three aspects of monarchy – economic, political and cultural – I have come to the conclusion that we Nepalese are better off getting rid of this white elephant than keeping it. At this point I remember a story that I used to hear from my elders when I was a kid. It was about a Baba (saint) who predicted way back in King Prithvi Narayan’s time that the Shah dynasty will come to an end after the 10th monarch (or was it 11th?). Anyway, King Birendra was the 10th Shah King so may be that Baba had a divine vision and saw the palace massacre happening nearly 250 years earlier! And may be we should follow that Baba’s divine words and put an end to the monarchy now before it is too late.