King Birendra had just completed 30 years of his reign. It spanned the decades of Nepal's development from when this once-sequestered kingdom was getting accustomed to the big wide world, up to the present muddled foray into parliamentary democracy.
In 1971, the country was still largely roadless, and travelling 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. The network of roads in Nepal has increased four-fold in that time.
The annual budget in 1971 was 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, and the literacy rate has risen from 15 percent to nearly 50 percent. Annual per capita income has gone up from $80 when King Birendra came to the throne in 1971 to $210 today, even though the population has also doubled from 12 million to 24 million. During his coronation in 1975, King Birendra announced free primary education through the country. The National Planning Commission was set up in 1974 and the National Forests and Parks Act for protecting wooded commons was promulgated the same year. In 1975, National Forest Development programme was begun. King Birendra also gave directives to establish the Nepal Press Council to oversee the development of media, and set up a commission for judicial reform.
But the biggest change has come in the transformation of the political structure since the People's Movement in 1990. A violent and cathartic upheaval, which threatened the institution of Nepal's monarchy, ended up not only restoring democracy, but also in rejuvenating the prestige of the king as a constitutional monarch. But this has been a mixed blessing-the last decade has been messy, elected officials have largely proved to be as venal and irresponsible as the people they replaced. Yet, the most important gain since 1990 is the Nepalis' conviction that a constitutional monarchy and democracy can not only co-exist, but also is perhaps the most desirable polity for this multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic nation. Not only is the institution of monarchy part of Nepal's tradition, but it is also the most important symbol of Nepali nationhood. The Nepali people have time and again shown a genuine affection-almost devotion-for their kings. The queue to receive tika from the monarch grows every year. The grief, sadness and shock of Nepalis this past week comes out of genuine affection-it is not put on, or forced.
No doubt, the reputation of the institution of monarchy has suffered setbacks as it did after the dissolution of the BP Koirala government by King Mahendra in 1960. King Birendra inherited the Panchayat system that his father had put into place. After the student unrest led to the 1979 referendum, he introduced direct elections of the Rastriya Panchayat and made the prime minister directly responsible and accountable to the House. Despite the party-less nature of the Panchayat, the amendment gave it a democratic veneer. This experiment did not last, and in ten years public demands for full-scale democracy boiled over. The king's absolute powers were dismantled and replaced with a constitutional monarchy. Democratic leaders, many of whom suffered long years in jail and exile, soon assumed power and almost immediately began to experience first-hand the challenges of Nepal's governance. It became 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. Even though the constitution had taken away his executive powers, King Birendra's standing among Nepalis grew enormously, because he played the role of constitutional monarch by the book, never overstepping his bounds and preferring to be guarded, despite pressure from hardliners to resume his previous autocratic role. 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 nostalgia for strong-man rule.
King Birendra erred on the side of cautiousness, as shown by his asking the Supreme Court for advice on the constitutional crisis caused by the dissolution of parliament in 1994 and 1995 on the recommendation of prime ministers Girija Koirala and Man Mohan Adhikary respectively. Legal experts debated whether he should have taken the matter to the courts, but most felt he acted legally and maturely to defuse the situation. The relationship between the monarch and elected prime minister represents the relationship between the constitutional monarchy and the people in a democracy. 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 for the diplomatic community last year in the course of which he said: "Only if people in responsible positions carry 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 realised the extreme public sensitiveness to every word he uttered. Former Speaker and legal expert, Daman Nath Dhungana, attributes this to the hangover of the 1961 putsch and the hobby of Nepali intellectuals to look for historic parallels. 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.
In the last decade, the king called for over 20 ordinary or special sittings of parliament. Parliament has made or passed more than 500 new laws-all signed into law by King Birendra, except the sensitive Citizenship Bill, which he sent to the Supreme Court on a technicality. King Birendra had the power to send acts back to parliament for re-discussion, but rarely used it. In the past ten years we've had ten prime ministers: Koirala (twice), Bhattarai (twice), Adhikary, Thapa, Chand, Nepal and Deuba. None felt that King Birendra did not heed their advice or created problems for them. Besides in matters that affect them directly, no party publicly protested King Birendra's role.
In recent months, as the Maoist insurgency escalated, King Birendra found himself increasingly ambivalent about allowing the Royal Nepal Army to be used for the Integrated Security and Defence Package. But most Nepalis also know that the armed forces are more loyal to the palace than to the elected government. This ambiguity is most apparent in the friction between the government and the palace and army about how to deal with the Maoists, whose avowed goal is to abolish the monarchy and declare Nepal a peoples' republic. The army is reluctant to accede to command by a confused civilian bureaucracy, but the civilian government and its police are fighting the insurgency with one hand tied behind their back. King Birendra did not make his views known, but it is clear he was worried that the army would be sucked into a wider civil war.
For the last 10 years the palace was playing by the rules set for it by the constitution, and is now slowly trying to create its own space. Other voices are asking for the role of a constitutional monarch to be redefined. Some want the monarch to reassert himself, while others want him to stay aloof and leave matters to the elected government. 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-much as he did during the winter visits he made to the various parts of the country during the Panchayat years.