The man who would be king (for a second time)
Gyanendra was so unpopular when he ascended to the throne after the massacre of the Nepalese royal family that the country soon became a republic. Now he wants to return
Wednesday 07 April 2010
In a large room garishly furnished with a bright yellow carpet in Kathmandu's Narayanhiti Palace, King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah appears to be smiling. It is not the real former monarch, of course. Since the spring of 2008 when Gyanendra was unceremoniously forced from his throne, the last in a line of Hindu monarchs stretching back 239 years, the only royalty to be found in this jarringly designed 1960s palace-turned-museum exist in photographs and portraits, such as the one in which the former ruler appears to be suppressing a grin. But is it an omen? Perhaps so. Two years after he was stripped of his title and ordered from his palace as the Himalayan nation declared itself a republic, the former king wants his old job back.
Seizing on seemingly widespread discontent with Nepal's political parties and growing public anxiety over everything from power cuts to the failure to agree a constitution, the 62-year-old apparently believes he may be the solution to Nepal's problems. In his first proper interview since losing his throne, Gyanendra recently claimed he did not believe the institution of Nepal's monarchy was over. "I don't think it has ended... When you turn the pages of history of the nation, such coming and going has been consistent," he told a local television channel.
He said that in the two years since the republic had been declared, the security of ordinary people had suffered and when asked directly whether he wished to return, he said: "The people's views and their opinion is paramount, so I feel everyone will have to abide to such views."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nepal's elected politicians reacted with fury. Having been at loggerheads for much of the past two years, the three main parties came together to denounce what they termed a series of attacks against historic achievements and appealed to the public to "unite against conspiracies against the republic". The country's president, who replaced Gyanendra as head of state, claimed "the era of kings is over".
In many ways it is remarkable that the king is even contemplating a return to his throne, or that Nepal's politicians are feeling so obviously threatened. His enforced departure two years ago, when he had to hand over his sceptre and jewel-embossed crown of peacock feathers, followed an election in which the majority of parties ran with a pledge to turn the country into a republic and do away with the Shah dynasty which had ruled Nepal since 1768. The party that won the most seats, and which would go on to form the government, the Maoists, had campaigned the most vociferously against the monarchy.
Yet there are those who believe that the way in which Gyanendra was bustled from office was unfair and unconstitutional. Kamal Thapa, chairman of the right-wing opposition Rashtriya Prajatantra Party, is campaigning for the government to hold a referendum in which people would be questioned on three issues: whether they supported the return of the monarchy, whether they agreed with declaring Nepal a secular state rather than a Hindu nation and whether they supported federalism. He said the public had not had a chance to vote directly on any of these issues. "If the people of Nepal were given a choice, they would say yes [to the return of the monarchy]," claimed Mr Thapa, who served as a minister during a controversial period of absolute rule headed by Gyanendra. "The monarchy is a victim of the grand designs of external forces – India was never happy with the idea of monarchy – and the strategic force of the extreme left."
Gyanendra was never a popular monarch. Had it not been for the royal massacre of 2001 in which most members of the ruling family including the then king, Birendra, lost their lives after the crown prince embarked on a still-mysterious drunken, drug-fuelled rampage, it is unlikely he would become Nepal's head of state. As it was, the crown prince, who was liked by the public and who was expected to take over from his father, succumbed to self-inflicted gunshot wounds having shot down his closest relatives in a suite of rooms located at the rear of Narayanhiti Palace.
When it emerged that Gyanendra, the brother of Birendra, had been selected to take over the throne, there were widespread demonstrations in protest. The government was so concerned that it did not announce the move in advance and most residents of Kathmandu only learned of it as a result of the blasts from a 33-gun salute to mark his ascension.
Gyanendra was unpopular then, but he proceeded to make matters even worse. In February 2005, the increasingly authoritarian monarch suspended the parliament – his supporters say it was done at the request of the prime minister – and took power, returning Nepal to a form of absolute rule that had been done away with in 1990. It triggered massive demonstrations that shook Kathmandu and which the king suppressed by ordering the Royal Nepalese Army to confront protesters with live rounds and tear gas.
Against this backdrop, there was little support for the king among the country's main political parties when, in 2006, the Maoists, who had fought a bitter decade long civil war against the government that had cost 13,000 lives, announced that their price for ending their armed struggle and re-entering mainstream politics, was the abolition of the monarchy.
Most observers believe it is unlikely Gyanendra could return to the throne. Yet the enduring support for a man who was never much liked speaks much about the current state of Nepal, stumbling and struggling two years after becoming a republic.
"People are anxious, and they yearn for some assurance. And unreasonably, the more conservative among them look to the monarchy with nostalgia," said analyst Manjushree Thapa, author of Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy.
Some Nepali commentators believe the former king has sought to capitalise on national angst following the recent death of G P Koirla, head of the Nepali Congress party, who served as prime minister on four occasions and who played a key role brokering peace with the Maoists.
Yet the problems confronting Nepal and its deeply impoverished population go deeper than that. Less than two months away from a deadline to agree a new constitution, the main parties still cannot reach agreement on some of the most basic issues. In recent weeks, the situation has become so bad that the current prime minister, Madhav Kumar Nepal, of the Communist Party of Nepal Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML), has been trying to stave off an unexpected move to oust him from elements within his own party. Some believe that if the constitution is not agreed, Mr Nepal will be forced to form a "unity government" of all parties to avoid political meltdown.
Some people believe that a portion of the blame for the current situation can be laid at the feet of the Maoists and their leader, Pushpa Kamal Dahal or Prachanda, who became the first prime minister of the republic of Nepal, only to resign in May 2009 amid a row over efforts to integrate thousands of former Maoist fighters into the national army.
Since his resignation, the Maoists have organised countless strikes that have brought many cities to a halt. But in a country where so many people struggle to even get enough to eat, where power blackouts in the capital can last for more than 12 hours and where piles of stinking rubbish litter Kathmandu's streets, stability rather than strikes are what most people appear to want.
It is within this context that Gyanendra is hoping to make return. In recent weeks, the former ruler, traditionally considered a living god, has made appearances at several high-profile Hindu religious events at which he received an enthusiastic response from the crowds. The former king declined to give an interview, but a source close to the one-time monarch told The Independent that he had taken his ousting two years ago badly.
"His view is that if the people want him, he is ready to serve," said the source, who asked not to be identified. "He has no political ambition. He wants to be like a king."
Timeline: A decade of turmoil
2001 Crown prince Dipendra shoots the king and most members of the royal family, before turning the gun on himself. He survives for three days. When he dies, Gyanendra is crowned king.
2005 Gyanendra suspends parliament after a surge in Maoist violence during the long-running insurgency. He returns Nepal to a form of absolute rule that was ended in 1990. The country's main political parties and the Maoists join together and vow to restore democracy in Nepal.
2006 After weeks of strikes and demonstrations that leave 19 dead, protesters ring the capital Kathmandu and force the king to reinstate parliament. The new government calls a ceasefire with the Maoists, who join an interim government. Later in the year, the Maoists declare the insurgency, that cost 13,000 lives, at an end.
2007 Government nationalises the royal palaces, the first step to seizing all of Gyanendra's property.
2008 Gyanendra is forced from the throne, the last king in a line of Hindu monarchs stretching back 239 years.
2010 Gyanendra indicates his willingness to return to the throne as the main parties squabble over a new constitution.
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