King Birendra\'s reign goes into its 30th year in 2001. It has spanned three decades of Nepal\'s development: from a period when this once-sequestered kingdom was starting to get accustomed to the big wide world right up to our present muddled foray into parliamentary democracy.
In 1972, the country was still largely road less, and traveling from one part of Nepal to another invariably required crossing over into India. Today, the 1,000-km Mahendra Highway named after King Birendra\'s father, links the country from east to west while the increased four-fold in that period. The annual budget in 1972 used to be barely Rs 1 billion; today it has crossed the Rs 80 billion mark. Nepal\'s infant mortality rate has been slashed from 172 per 1,000 live births to less than 90 today. The country\'s literacy rate has risen from 15 percent thirty years ago to nearly half the population today. Annual per capita income has gone up from $80 when King Birendra came to the throne to $210, even though the population has also doubled from 12 million to 24 million.
But the country has paid a price for some of this progress. Kathmandu has grown from an idyllic valley with its unique urban-rural blend into a chaotic and polluted replica of a Third World metropolis. A city once known for its emerald beauty and tranquility has now earned a reputation for soullessness and crass concrete. In 1971, the holy Bagmati used to still have clear water as it flowed past sandy banks, today it is a stinking sewer. Garbage on the streets has become so common that Kathmandu locals have stopped noticing it.
Perhaps the biggest change in the past 30 years has come in the transformation of the political structure since the People\'s Movement in 1990. A violent and cathartic upheaval, which at one point threatened the institution of Nepal\'s monarchy itself, ended up not only restoring democracy, but also rejuvenating the prestige of the King as a constitutional monarch.But today, many Nepalis are beginning to regard this hard-won democracy itself as a mixed blessing.
The past ten years have been messy. Elected officials have proved themselves as venal and irresponsible as the people they replaced. But there is a growing conviction among many Nepalis that a constitutional monarchy and democracy must not only co-exist, but that it is perhaps the most desirable polity for this multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic nation.
No doubt the image and reputation of the institution of the monarchy have suffered setbacks as it did after the dissolution of the BP Koirala government by King Mahendra in 1960 (and to some extent with the hit-and-run accident that reportedly involved King Birendra\'s nephew earlier this year). But at present it seems little more than an unpleasant memory. King Birendra inherited the Panchayat system that his father had put into place. After the student unrest leading to the 1979 referendum, he introduced direct elections to the Rastriya Panchayat and made the prime minister accountable to the House. Despite the partyless nature of the Panchayat, the amendment gave it a democratic veneer. But this experiment did not last, and in ten more years the public demands for full-scale democracy boiled over. And now, ten years later again, the euphoria has worn off and just as in many newly democratic nations around the world there are stirrings here, too, of a nostalgia for strongman rule.
One of King Birendra\'s earliest projects was to revamp the country\'s education system. Low literacy levels would have hobbled progress, and this was a priority. The new education plan, started in 1971 was designed to upgrade efficiency of the education system so that the quality of instruction would improve. During his coronation in 1975, King Birendra declared that primary education in the country would be free, in 1978 he decreed that all instructional material would also be provided free of costs to schools. Former prime minister Kirti Nidhi Bista recalls how it all started: "Plans for the new education system was drawn up in a dusty school classroom in Surkhet-that was the first meeting of the planning body."
King Birendra\'s other contribution was to start the National Development Service which sent post-graduate students on a one-year stint to work on development projects in rural areas, although it was later abandoned for fear that it was radicalising the populace. Similarly, the new education plan was quietly shelved, but decisions taken in the 1970s to set up new institutions would have far-reaching consequences in the country\'s long-term development and environment conservation.
Since the disbanding of the absolute monarchy and its replacement with a constitutional monarchy, democratic leaders, many of whom suffered long years in jail and exile, assumed power and almost immediately began to experience first-hand the challenges of governance. Over the next few years, it was apparent that many of them were poor managers, the level of corruption escalated, and political infighting gradually brought governance to a standstill. Ironically, as the government\'s image plummeted, the king\'s stature grew in inverse proportion. Even though the Constitution had taken away his executive powers, King Birendra\'s standing among Nepalis has grown enormously.
The reason for this is that the king has played the role of constitutional monarch by the book, he has never overstepped his bounds and has preferred to be guarded, despite pressure from hardliners to resume his previous autocratic role. By erring on the side of cautiousness, King Birendra showed that he could walk skillfully through the constitutional minefield-as shown by his handling of the constitutional crisis caused by the dissolution of parliament in 1994 and 1995 on the recommendation of prime ministers Girija Prasad Koirala and Man Mohan Adhikari respectively. The King asked the Supreme Court for its advice. This led to a debate and division among legal experts as to whether he should have taken the matter to the courts at all, but most felt he had acted legally and maturely to defuse the situation.
The relationship between the monarch and elected prime minister represents the relationship between the constitutional monarch and the people in a democracy. The king and prime minister try to meet every Thursday at the palace to discuss matters of state. In spite of these meetings there have been instances in the past few years that the king has been forced to write to successive prime ministers drawing their attention to urgent matters affecting the people. Last year, the king wrote to Krishna Prasad Bhattarai concerning the escalating Maoist activities, and two years ago he wrote to acting prime minister Shailaja Acharya regarding flood relief.
King Birendra\'s personal thoughts on the state of the nation are hard to come by, but he does give tantalising hints, as he did during a dinner organised for the diplomatic community last year in which he said: "Only if people in responsible positions cany out their duties with care and accountability and treat all Nepalis equally will the people of this country believe completely in democracy."
This comment triggered a reaction, one MP felt that even such a mild reprimand should not have been aired publicly and should have been conveyed to then prime minister Bhattarai in person. There is no doubt that King Birendra realises the extreme public sensitiveness to every word he utters. Former speaker of the House of Representatives and legal expert, Daman Nath Dhungana, attributes this to the hangover of the 1961 putsch and the tendency of Nepali intellectuals to look for a historic parallel. Kirti Nidhi Bista differs. "If the people appeal to the king to step in, he will still have to think very, very carefully," says Bista.
But most Nepalis are also aware of the reality that the armed forces is more loyal to the palace than to the elected government. This ambiguity is most apparent in the friction between the government on the one hand and the palace and army on the other about how to deal with the Maoists whose avowed goal is to abolish the monarchy and declare Nepal a people\'s republic. The army is holding itself back, reluctant to accede to command by a confused civilian bureaucracy, and fully cognizant that taking on the insurgents will be the last resort and there is no going back for the country after that. On the other hand, the civilian government and its police are battling the insurgency with one hand tied behind their back. The brewing crisis may in the short term favour the hardline right which wants to show that democracy has failed, but ultimately it will have to confront the insurgents who have often said that they see them as the ultimate class enemies.
After the advent of democracy the King has called for more than 22 ordinary and specials sittings of parliament, at which it has made or passed more than 500 new laws. The King has the power to send back acts for re-discussion to parliament, but so far he has not made use of it. So, in the past ten years we\'ve had ten prime ministers: Koirala (four times), Bhattarai (twice), Adhikari, Deuba, Chand and Thapa. None have stated that the King has not carried out their advice or created any obstacles in their work. Besides, in matters that affect the government directly, no party has publicly protested the King\'s role.
The palace, which had total control of the treasury in the Panchayat days, has since 1990 been managing with the Rs 90 million or so allocated to it by the government. For the last ten years the palace has played by the rules laid out for it in the constitution, and now is trying to create its own space. At the same time, voices are being raised asking that the role of a constitutional monarch be redefined. Some want the monarch to reassert his role, while others want him to stay aloof and leave matters to the elected government. Says the king\'s nominee and member of the Upper House,
Janardan Acharya: "The King has to play the role of the referee. He cannot kick the ball himself but must also make sure that no one commits a foul."
The compromise seems to be that most Nepalis would like to see their king play a more active part, and be a role model in the development arena.