Had BP Koirala listened to Ganesh Man Singh’s call for a neutral government to hold the famous 1980 referendum, things could have been very different.
With the kot massacre nearly wiping out all his opponents, Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana in 1847 usurped all state powers and imposed an autocratic Rana family rule in a country that had always been beleaguered by palace feuds, intrigues and conspiracies. To keep the regime intact, internally, he subdued his countrymen with tyrannical powers; externally, he became subservient to the interests of the British Raj. The oligarchy survived for 104 years, until the dissenting voices within the Rana and disgruntled bhardars of durbar, with the support of the disenfranchised monarchy, decided to wage a joint political movement.
They were able to restore the power of the monarchy in 1951. Had there not been an implosion in the Rana family, the situation could have taken a different turn. Alternatively, if Britons had not left India in 1947 or Nepal did not have the devastating earthquake in 1934, our history would have been quite different.
Nepal’s democratic experiment that started with the restoration of King Tribhuwan in 1951 was short lived. In 1960, King Mahendra, using the army that was under his control, toppled a democratically elected government, banned political parties and imposed monarchy-led one party regime called Panchayat that would last for three decades (1960-1990). In his Aatmabritanta, late BP Koirala laments of his failure to take control of the Bijuli Garat, the special army battalion deployed in the royal place that was instrumental in the royal coup.
It was possible for the regime to last for three decades because, externally, we were at the height of the Cold War. The tussles between China and Russia and between China and India also helped the regime as both India and China were occupied with other stuff. This provided a “conducive climate and soil” for Panchayat to take root.
Internally, one-time banned communist parties also became friends of the monarchy simply because they turned out to be an enemy of an enemy, i.e., the Nepali Congress. Had the communists cooperated with Nepali Congress in the referendum of 1980, democracy would not have been delayed by a decade. Or had BP Koirala just listened to Ganesh Man Singh’s call for a neutral government to hold referendum, things could again have been different.
By1990, the environment was totally different. Externally, the world was seeing a fresh wave of democratic movements and collapse of communist regimes. It was also a time of souring of relations between Nepal and India. Amazingly, even back in the late 90s, we had a big earthquake followed by 15 months of Indian nakabandi.
Internally, Nepali Congress and the divided communists were jointly launching agitation programs. In such a situation, it was near impossible for the sojho manchhe in Harvard-educated King Birendra to resist. The result: the monarchy-led one party regime was toppled and parliamentary democracy reinstituted with the king reduced to a constitutional figurehead.
Nepal’s tryst with democracy was again short lived. The fighting between and within political parties led to an untimely demise of an elected government in 1994, followed by the rise of the Maoist insurgency in 1996, before the infamous palace massacre in 2001 badly tarnished the image of the monarchy. Nepal was on a political downhill. The distrust and disorientation among political players provided an opportunity for a near-defunct monarchy to revive from its graveyard.
The newly-crowned King Gyanendra assumed executive powers, first indirectly by dissolving the parliament in 2002 and then, directly by imposing a coup d’état in 2004. Literally, he had turned the clock back to 1960. There was also an external factor to reckon with: the unfolding “war on terror” after 9/11 also helped boost the morale of the monarchy which vowed to hunt down the ‘terrorists’ in the Maoists. But Gyanendra failed to read the political barometer both in and outside the country. He even failed to read the writing on the wall when the then American Ambassador to Nepal remarked that the last thing he wanted to see was “the king clinging to a helicopter”.
Instead of spitting venom against the political leaders as ‘corrupted’ and the Maoists as ‘terrorists’, it would have been wise for Gyanendra to align with one of them. Then, he would have driven a wedge between the two forces and continued to rule the roost. Had Gyanendra not appointed senile and outdated men into his cabinet, things would have been different as well. It would also have a totally different case had there not been an implosion within the royal family. For one it would have been a nightmare to be ruled by ‘King Deependra’. The deepicide—fratricide, matricide, regicide, homicide and suicide rolled into one—saved the country from a nightmare.
So it was now the turn of the parliamentary parties and the Maoists to wage a joint movement against the monarchy. Subsequently, the mass movement in 2006 forced the king to abdicate his throne. In 2008, the monarchy was given a final farewell. The elected Constituent Assembly declared the country henceforth to be a federal, secular and inclusive republic. Everybody thought the long chapter of messy politics in Nepal was now closed. It wasn’t meant to be.
When the first Constituent Assembly failed to draft a constitution, we went into another phase of transition. In 2012, the assembly was unceremoniously dissolved. Those of us who have kept a close watch on Nepali politics could have heard a voice, albeit meek, saying that the dissolution was a blessing in disguise: it saved the country from an inevitable bloodshed.
With the second CA elections in 2013, the meek voice turned into a loud and deafening one. Those who were in the majority earlier now found themselves in the minority. With monarchy gone, it was time for the brothers to jostle among themselves for the space left vacant by the monarchy. Had it not been for the devastating earthquake in 2015 we would still be struggling to put together a constitution. I say there is a cure in nature. In the meantime, we also experienced yet another nakabandi from our southern big brother.
The political agitation in Tarai-Madhesh continues. Historically, there is a big political change in Nepal every ten years. As we mark a decade of the demise of monarchy, will there be a new chapter in our history? Or will history simply repeat itself?