Nepali Times
'Palace - speak'

The king rose from his seat and advanced to shake my hand. He was dressed in white, the loose shirting and tight cotton trousers or suruwal worn by most Nepalese men. On his head was a typical Nepali topi, again mainly with a muted grey-and-pink pattern. His heavy, dark-rimmed spectacles were as in all the official photographs I had seen, but his face was thinner than it had once been and his moustache was trimmed to a shadow of its former, more luxuriant self. I wondered whether the weight loss was connected with the king's recent heart problems.

I was asked to sit on an upright, white upholstered chair, while King Birendra returned to his black leather armchair opposite me. The room was large and rather impersonal, its furnishings dating from the 1960s or 70s when Narayanhiti Palace had been refurbished. A leopard skin half-hidden beneath a glass-topped table and a pair of elephant tusks above the book case were the only hints of oriental exoticism. Otherwise all was plain and functional. The king put his hands together in front of him, forming a bridge with his fingers.

"So what do [sic] want to ask me?" He smiled.

And so began a long and broad-ranging conversation, the main theme of which-whether one liked it or not-was the limitations of what King Birendra can speak out on in his role as constitutional monarch. We touched on many topics: the changing role of monarchy; Nepal's delicate position wedged in between India and China, which the king's ancestor Prithvi Narayan Shah bluntly described as being like "a yam between two boulders"; Birendra's own proposals that Nepal and the Himalayan region generally be declared a 'Zone of Peace'. But every time we seemed to be getting somewhere the trail went cold and we entered an indeterminate region of possibilities and options, with the king proposing any number of alternative ways of looking at the question without coming up with any clear opinions of his own.

To begin with I found all this rather baffling. The whole conversation had an Alice in Wonderland quality to it. For just as it seemed that the king was on the point of reaching a firm conclusion, he would introduce two other points of view; and, like Alice, I was left wondering which hole the White Rabbit had run down.

On the other hand, I was left in no doubt that Nepal's ruling monarch has an agile mind with a strongly analytical bent-an approach which, like the slightest trace of an American accent, may well go back to the time he spent at Harvard. As he worked his way around a subject his whole body shifted from side to side, as though this would facilitate his acquiring a fresh viewpoint on the matter at hand. The large square glasses which he always wears swivelled like TV monitors that seemed to focus upon some midpoint in the air where he could best conceptualise his latest argument. In his mannerisms he reminded me more of an academic than a power-broker. And yet I was very much aware that for nearly two decades King Birendra had exercised close to absolute power over his twenty million subjects.

I must confess to experiencing real difficulties in following some of the king's arguments. Maybe this is because I am not sufficiently quick-witted to appreciate all the subtle nuances. Or maybe it is because he has adopted a new rhetoric to fit in with his new position as constitutional monarch within a multi-party democracy.

One of the cardinal rules of this 'palace-speak' is the avoidance of any statement that might be construed as an official line on policy, since this could be taken as infringing on the domain of the duly elected government. And given how recently the Palace was effectively running the country, locking up pro-democracy leaders and shutting down opposition newspapers, it is only natural that the current generation of politicians remains highly sensitive to anything that smacks of royal intervention in policy-making. The end result is that King Birendra is unable-or unwilling- to make an unequivocal statement on just about anything. For if he were to do so, he would almost certainly be criticised for acting unconstitutionally.

To give some idea of how palace-speak has evolved during the 1990s, here are some of the king's formal replies to my questions.

Q. What were your overriding thoughts at the time of your coronation?

A. I have always endeavoured to abide by the aspirations of the people in the best interest and welfare of the nation. Some of my primary concerns during that time were consolidating the sovereign integrity of Nepal and safeguarding the liberty of every Nepali while enhancing their welfare and building the necessary institutions so that all Nepalese could live in justice, peace, security, happiness and freedom.

Q. Shortly thereafter you proposed that Nepal and/or the Himalayan region become a Zone of Peace. Do you think the concept still has validity? Or given the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region, is it an idea whose time has now come?

A. There is a wide consensus on the fact that the need to institutionalise peace is even greater today than ever before. There can, of course, be differences of opinion on how best to go about achieving it.

Q. What do you consider the principal benefits conferred by the monarchical system, as opposed to republican or other forms of government?

A. Every nation has to evolve a political system which is best suited to meet its requirements. In Nepal, the monarch has always been guided by popular will and the relationship between the monarchy and the people is traditionally based on mutual trust and confidence in each other.

I could go on, though I doubt one would be any the wiser about what the King of Nepal actually thinks on such weighty matters. His replies, both formal and informal, more closely resemble an elaborate kind of verbal fencing, the main purpose of which is to avoid making any statement that could be judged unconstitutional rather than an attempt at a 'full and frank response'.

That King Birendra does have strongly held views on all these issues is certain. The role of monarchy, the direction of the country, foreign policy issues, the importance of traditional culture- all of these were expounded in extenso during the eighteen years he presided over the Panchayat system of government. Then came Jana Andolan and the country's adoption of multi-party democracy. Since then there has been a resounding silence from the Palace. And although, through persistence and luck, I became the first foreign writer to be granted an audience with the king under the new dispensation, I cannot claim to have penetrated the palace's in-depth defences whose very purpose is to shield from public scrutiny what are the king's real views on matters of public interest.

Such self-imposed restraint applies to all constitutional monarchs. Imagine the public outcry in Britain if Queen Elizabeth II were to make any statement that clearly favoured one political party over another, or even seemed to endorse a policy other than that approved by the elected government of the day. It is almost unthinkable precisely because Britain has had a constitutional monarchy for so long. And although left unwritten, the basic ground-rules of what may or may not be said have been observed punctiliously from one generation to the next.

This is not the case in Nepal, where less than a decade has elapsed since the monarchy stood at the very centre of government. True, the 1991 constitution redefines the king's role with some precision. But there has not been sufficient time for its provisions to become accepted norms, nor for their observance to be taken for granted. And some areas remain rather loosely demarcated. For instance, while I was waiting in Kathmandu to see the king a controversy arose over whether the three royal appointees to the Upper House could vote as they deemed fit, or whether they should always support the elected government. Some members of the majority Nepal Congress Party went so far as to accuse the Palace of acting unconstitutionally because the royal appointees voted against their party.

A residue ot suspicion remains between the Palace and the main political parties. Sensitivities are such that even the slightest issue might spark off accusations that the king has exceeded his consitutional role. Which is why the king does not normally talk to the media, and when he does is careful to steer clear of any contentious issues.

(Excerpted from Kingdoms Beyond the Clouds: Journeys in Search of the Himalayan Kings, Macmillan, London, 2000, ?14.99. Available at Mandala Book Point, Kantipath.)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)