In the late 18th century, King Prithbi Narayan Shah forged the physical unity of the country. In the mid-19th century, Jang Bahadur created an administrative structure. Democratic aspirations took root in Nepal in the 20th century, at the time of anti-colonial struggles in Asia. It was the Nepali Congress that forged political unity around the values of socialism and democracy.
The relationship between the NC and the ruling elite was always dualistic. They respected each other's contributions and commitments but disagreed vehemently on who should prevail. Until 1990, the king had his way. Perhaps King Gyanendra had this duality in mind when he told the media recently that the relationship between monarchy and the parties was like a quarrelsome couple.
The monarch seems to have overlooked the impact of the 1990 People's Movement, which changed the stable equation of mutually adversarial respect between the palace and political parties forever. In deference to King Birendra, political leaders never articulated it in public but the pledge never to accept a secondary role in national politics became the theme of all political parties. When asked about his response to a repetition of the royal-military coup of 1960, a frail and visibly ailing Ganesh Man Singh (GM) had said: "One more fight. The last but the best."
The 1990 movement made the people sovereign. Narayanhiti was uncomfortable with this reality from day one. But there was little the courtiers could do once the elections were held under international scrutiny and the NC emerged as a clear winner. Despite machinations, the monarchist RPP failed to produce a hung house.
The parliament then became the site of contestation. The NC itself became a wiling victim to the time-tested theory of divide-and-rule as Girija Prasad Koirala threw away his majority and called for midterm polls. But instead of the RPP, the UML emerged as the biggest party in the new house.
Premier Man Mohan Adhikari had adroitly pulled the 'nationalist' rug from under the feet of the RPP by raising the issue of the 1950 controversial treaty with India. The isolation of the palace was complete. But the sudden rise of the UML (Time magazine saw it as the hammer-and-sickle atop Mount Everest) created a red scare. An unapologetically rightist Sher Bahadur Deuba lead the charge. The NC jettisoned its socialist moorings and once again played second fiddle to the palace. Unfortunately, GM was no longer there to caution over-enthusiastic free market fundamentalists. Second-rung NC leaders had become too soft to continue with ideological convictions of their party. Even though the NC won the third parliamentary polls, it compromised its creed for political gain. NC leaders began to emulate the tried and tested methods of earlier rulers to maintain their hold over state power even as Narayanhiti was surreptitiously expanding its role into Singha Darbar.
Soon, the NC became a house divided and began to collapse. By dissolving parliament in the dead of the night on 22 May 2002 when he knew that elections could never be held in six months due to the raging insurgency, Deuba handed the state back to Narayanhiti. October Fourth and February First just completed that move.
Today, the country is back to square one as palace propagandists have once again begun to portray political parties as 'miscreants' just as they did before 1990. But despite their supposed unpopularity, the parties aren't as unsure of themselves as they were in the aftermath of the People's Movement. Under pressure from their cadre, the NC and UML have withdrawn their support even to constitutional monarchy. It doesn't mean that Nepal will turn into a republic tomorrow but the stopwatch is ticking.
Whenever Maoists opposed the monarchy, political parties resolutely stood in its defence. Now the king is left to fend for himself in an environment extremely hostile to the idea of privileges of birth. His coterie will desert the palace the moment they perceive that protection and patronage is no longer available.
The challenge now is to fit a ceremonial role for hereditary kings into the constitution of a democratic republic. The 21st century decidedly belongs to the people not ruling monarchs, be they constitutional or constructive.