Nepali Times
The once and future king


Then the founder of Nepal's ruling Shah Dynasty, Prithvi Narayan Shah, set about creating his kingdom, he did so by building a victory tower called Basantapur where the old palace still stands. He got craftsmen, masons and artisans from every warring province and every rival ethnic group working together to build it. And with that single act, unified Nepal, as we know it today, was born. The year was 1768.

On 4 June 2001 beneath the tall shadow of Basantapur and the grim spectre of royal deaths, conspiracy theories, and a kingdom riven with political strife Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah was crowned the 12th Shah King of Nepal's 225 years old dynasty. This was his second coronation.

The first instance was a hasty coronation in 1950 performed by the last Rana prime minister, Mohan Sumshere, when the four-year-old Gyanendra was left behind in Kathmandu while his grandfather Tribhuvan and the rest of the royal family escaped to India. From there King Tribhuvan returned four months later, overthrew the Ranas and restored the supremacy of the Shahs as absolute monarchs.

Immediately after his second enthronement at 11am of 4 June, King Gyanendra appointed a commission to investigate and report on the deaths of the royal family in Narayanhiti Darbar made up of the chief justice, the speaker of the Lower House and the leader of the opposition, and gave them a three-day deadline. That the leader of the opposition, Madhav Nepal, refused to participate on a technicality shows a problem that has vexed the country-his compulsive need to play to the gallery which now often includes the "underground" Maoists. Madhav Nepal cannot be seen to be absolving even a constitutional monarch.

Controversy has dogged King Gyanendra's footsteps as palace eminence gris, as a legal but royal entrepreneur and even as a family man. His son Paras Shah inflamed the Nepali public with DUI incidents that caused fatalities, but he went un pinished even in post-democratic Nepal. Paras was seen as disorderly when he was high, and an outraged country blamed the father and royalty in general. Significantly, after he was crowned, Gyanendra while naming his wife Komal Queen was silent on the subject of a crown prince.

As a prince, Gyanendra inherited a hotel which he parlayed into an empire that included tea, tobacco, and other enterprises. Executives and workers alike claim that Gyanendra's touch is so light as to be almost non-existent, but his vision was revolutionary by standards of the day. Workshops, seminars, management excercises, international exposure, but most of all, his selection of the right person for the right job marked the of his corporation. His message was made even clearer: an enterprise seen as a failure was closed down with no-nonsense efficiency.

These are traits he is expected to lend to his role as constitutional monarch. Clear, succinct, urbane, King Gyanendra is not expected to suffer fools. As palace adviser, he has been known to cut short courtliness and traditional formality to get to the heart of matters. His vast library is said to display eclectic taste and the books in it are well thumbed through. He is known to converse knowledgably on a variety of subjects.

Several ambassadors went a few months ago to visit Gyanendra and stay overnight in a lodge in the forests. Among them were the Chinese, German, Indian and American envoys in Kathmandu. One of them recalled a fascinating evening filled with conversation that ranged over a variety of subjects on which the prince's grasp was sure, and his opinions culled from personal experience and extensive reading were sound. The king will be in constant touch with plenipotentiaries and their Heads of State, and is likely to display the same deft touch in his dealings.

When Prince Charles came to Nepal in the late seventies to go into the Himalaya to decide whether he should marry Princess Diana, it was Gyanendra and his kid brother Dhirendra who devised the "Royal Trek" below Machhapuchhre. Charles later recalled that while both princes were hosts extraordinaire, Gyanendra's knowledge of international affairs and both Britain's and Nepal's role in them was profound.

When the first SAARC summit was planned and Nepal was named host, it was Gyanendra who oversaw all the details with painstaking meticulousness. His planning started from the d?cor of the VIP lounge at the airport, went onto a renovation of the venue, the Summit Hotel, and he even undertook the supervision of building the SAARC suites where the late Rajiv Gandhi, Sri Lankan president JR Jayawardene and other heads of state stayed. A contractor on the suites recalled that Gyanendra was with them well into the night to see them completed in time.

As a known conservationist, King Gyanendra gave assent and helped plan the highly successful Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) that had visitors and Nepali citizens alike applauding the initiative, but not necessarily its behind-the-scenes mover who preferred to remain away from the limelight.

Gyanendra while always being a part of the palace, also chose to stay away from it as much as possible. And it is this role as eminence gris that always had him in a nebulous grey area, the target of whispered vilification that he never acknowledged as long as jobs entrusted to him got done. Preferring privacy over public acclaim, Gyanendra chose never to justify his actions and even the open praise of those he worked with never quite attached to him. He was always the unknown quantity, the Dark Prince. His intellectual worth set him even further apart.

So after the palace deaths, and the mourning and the street violence and curfews, the rumours and terrible doubts, King Gyanendra must learn to change from being the private prince to a centre stage player where the spotlight is relentless. From there he must use his considerable skills to weld together political parties constantly fighting each other, so that his country (and he himself) can emerge from shadowy sidelines to a place in the new global order where transparency is everything, where the media, to its detriment, robs efficient but private people of their right to privacy.

King Gyanendra's detractors, and there are many of those with vested interests, must look at the validity of Nietzsche's saying: "They who chase wrong doers must be careful lest they do wrong themselves. And those that stare into chaos must be aware that chaos stares back at them."

Just as King Prithvi Narayan Shah, with whom this all began, left the mountain fastness of a small place called Gorkha to allow his vision of a unified Nepal to bear fruit, so must his descendent King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah take his Nepal and his people that inevitable step forward from a developing nation to an emergent one. From poverty to pride, from being patronised to becoming a patron in its own right with its own creative genius.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)