In the Mahabharata, Bhisma Pitamah cuts a sorry figure. He is tormented by contradictions between his convictions and his loyalty to the king. Since the crown and the country are one and the same for him, loyalty triumphs and he finds himself on the wrong side of history. Such is the fate of courtiers who have to serve unjust rulers out of a sense of duty towards their country.
In the Nepali bureaucracy of the last century, Ram Mani Acharya Dixit was perhaps one of the first mandarins to wield enormous influence by virtue of his proximity to the all-powerful Rana Prime Minister Chandra Shumshere. Chandra used Ram Mani's native genius to keep the Mahila Gurujyu in check and ran the country with the advice of these two brilliant bahuns. With their help, Chandra amassed a fortune by making deals with the British over the recruitment of Gurkha soldiers and the mercenary services rendered by the Royal Nepali Army on the side of the British Empire.
Thirty years later, in Sardar Bhim Bahadur Pande, Juddha Shumshere found a young mandarin who could help him make money by clearing the tarai, setting up factories with public money, and running trading enterprises in discreet partnership with Newar and Marwari entrepreneurs. But Juddha was too intemperate to command the loyalty of anyone for too long and ultimately had to go into exile.
King Tribhuban relied heavily on the Indian brown sahibs, Bhagwan Sahai and CPN Sinha. The two were always at loggerheads with the leaders of the Nepali Congress and this raised their stature inside Narayanhiti. During Rana rule, Narayanhiti used to be a punishment posting for bureaucrats. After the Shah Restoration, it became the sole power centre.
King Mahendra's kingdom was run like a fiefdom. In the beginning, he didn't have much use for the services of intelligent courtiers. But as Nepal opened its doors to the frigid outside world of the Cold War, he had no option but to take notice of family faithful, Padam Bahadur Khatri and scholar and thinker, Yadunath Khanal. In time, Sardar Yadunath served as our ambassador to China, India, and the United States at crucial periods of Nepal's relationship with these countries. He may have been spotted by King Mahendra, but he served King Birendra with no less distinction.
King Birendra had bigger plans. Initially, he let the wizened mandarins fade away and handpicked whiz-kids as crown jewels for their promise rather than performance: Bhek Bahadur Thapa, Harka Gurung, Pashupati Shumshere, Mohammad Mohsin, and Mohan Man Sainju. But in later years, he also fell back on his own mandarins: Ranjan Raj Khanal as domestic affairs counsellor, Narayan Prasad Shrestha, the adviser on finance and foreign relations and Chiran Thapa as media manager. It's not yet clear who King Gyanendra's mandarins are, but our ambassador in New Delhi is one of them. Karna Dhoj Adhikari may be new to diplomacy, but he is a veteran of the Nepali bureaucracy having served in the ministries of finance and home before rising to the crucial post of chief secretary during King Birendra's rule.
Official Nepali history doesn't offer much by way of lessons to cope with the challenges of the future. However, the older generation of mandarins all wrote memoirs which offer insight into governance. And, as Carlyle observed, history is just a collection of biographies of historic personalities.
Ram Mani in his memoir, Purano Samjahna, records British India's intransigence. Sardar Bhim Bahadur in Tyas Bela Ko Nepal has written about difficulties of industrialisation in a landlocked country. Both wrote in Nepali, but Sardar Yadunath wrote in English and covered the entire gamut of statecraft, offering a ringside view of Nepali politics and diplomacy to the outsiders in his books: Reflections On Nepal-India Relations, Stray Thoughts, Nepal's Transition from Isolationism, and Nepal After Democratic Restoration.
The passing away of Sardar Yadunath Khanal (pictured, above) ended an era in the history of Nepali bureaucracy. The civil service isn't a calling for the best and the brightest in the land anymore. Now it is just a career option. Yadunath Khanal passed away peacefully on Saturday, and it was a mark of the man that he didn't want any fanfare and elaborate coverage to record his passing. All we have are his books to relive a tumultuous period of Nepali history of which he was such an important part.