Nepali Times
Guest Column
Unceremonial monarchy


Swedish anthropologist and author of The Patron and the Panca Bengt-Eric Borgstrom notes how during the Panchayat days the Nepali monarchy was in a severe role conflict with itself.

As a politician associated with modernity, the king had to prove himself by delivering development, but as an institution associated with tradition, he functioned as a bulwark against modernisation. The king's role during the Panchayat era reflected the contradictions of an institution straddling tradition and modernity.

By his presence at the Bhoto Jatra ceremony this week, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala is repeating that incongruity in a reverse manner: here was a modern institution asserting to portray its association with tradition.

Nepal's monarchy is in animated suspension, its fate to be decided by an elected constituent assembly. The prime minister is now head of state and head of government. Under normal circumstances, he should have been elected, but this prime minister emerged from a mass movement. Even so, prime ministers should have fixed tenures, their rule mandated through periodic elections. It is not a hereditary office, nor is it associated with tradition. It is a quintessentially modern institution that stands for the people's aspirations to a better life.

In mature democracies with constitutional monarchies such as in Europe, the line between the prime minister and monarch is well defined. The monarchs function as repositories of tradition and the linkages they have forged with the established church over the centuries is displayed during state ceremonies. Elected prime ministers are associated with modernity and have mostly been advocates of secularism.

Koirala's support for a ceremonial monarchy amidst a rising tide of republicanism could be seen as acceptance of this division of labour between monarchs and prime ministers. But his attendance at the Bhoto Jatra festival has blurred this separation.

One of the core pillars of secularism is the separation of state and religion. By taking the seat at Jawalakhel on Sunday Koirala underlined the continued alignment of the state with religion irrespective of the stricture of the interim constitution.

Republican India's secular leaders have sought to expand the frontiers of secularism but in doing so they have been careful not to encroach upon the religious or ritual spheres. At the Jagannath chariot carnival, Kangra's dussera, or the festivals in Varanasi, former kings remain patrons of the occasion, not chief ministers or the prime minister.

Coming from a mature democracy with a constitutional monarchy, Borgstrom, was arguing for a delineation of spheres between the monarchy and elected prime minister, and he saw cooperation between the two as a prerequisite for a stable polity.

Even as King Gyanendra continued to snub him, Koirala had been making a distinction between Gyanendra the person and monarchy the institution, calling for the retention of the monarchy even while asking the king to step down.

Perhaps in his enthusiasm to hit back at King Gyanendra (who obdurately shows no sign of abdicating) Koirala overlooked the fact that he is head of state of a secular country, and not of a Hindu kingdom. The presence of the head of the state in a Hindu-Buddhist religious festival is a setback to the idea of a secular state in as much as it tampers with established tradition.

Unwittingly Koirala the head of the state has seriously undermined Koirala the person who has argued for a ceremonial monarchy. What is a ceremonial monarch supposed to do if not attend religious, cultural, and educational functions? If the prime minister is to appropriate religious and cultural spaces like Bhoto Jatra for himself, what role is there for the present king, or future kings or queens? By his very presence at the Bhoto Jatra festival Koirala has made the idea of ceremonial monarchy ad absurdum.

Sudhindra Sharma is a Nepali sociologist specialising in religion.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)