Congress and monarchy : National reconciliation revisited

The end of Rana rule in 1951 brought about some ‘democratic innovations’, but monarchy didn’t find them comfortable. The rise of royal absolutism thus began with the concomitant weakening of parties. The agenda of constituent assembly set by the Delhi compromise reached between the Ranas, the Nepali Congress (NC) and King Tribhuvan under the auspices of the Government of India was abandoned both by the ambitious monarchs, and by the political leaders whose indulgence in personal bickering and intra-party conflicts sank the main issue into oblivion.

Even the constitution awarded by King Mahendra as a royal gift (by virtue of being a sovereign head) was murdered by its own creator using the army in December, 1960. The dialogue between King Mahendra and Prime Minister BP Koirala a day before the former staged a coup against his own government reveals that the latter had tried his best to remove mutual distrust between them. However, the developments leading upto the coup and in its aftermath demonstrated that monarchy and democracy were incompatible in Nepal.

The struggle between the King and the NC became more focused following the 1960 royal coup. The NC went on to adopt numerous strategies and tactics to put pressure on the King to democratise, but to no avail. Cooperation offered by the party in 1968 also failed to build up the rapport with the King, provoking BP Koirala to take up arms against the regime in the early 1970s. Later Koirala sought cooperation by offering national reconciliation but that too was rejected by the palace following the contrived victory in favour of partyless panchayat regime led by the King in the national referendum held in May 1980.

BP had appeared conciliatory in trying to develop a rapport with the King through indications that he would accept “reformed panchayat” if some small preconditions needed for joining the royal regime were removed. But he was denied that opportunity when the King went alone on the road to authoritarianism. In fact, most Kings seemed to come to life only under pressure. King Birendra too felt the heat of student agitation, and conscious of the successful Iranian Revolution against monarchy, went for a referendum to choose either panchayat system with reforms or multiparty system, till date treated as the forbidden fruit.

A revisit to BP Koirala’s offer of national reconciliation with the King in the 1970s would not do us much good at present. BP Koirala’s reconciliation offer came in a different context and time. During his life, NC and the left parties could not bridge their differences to form a working relationship against the royal regime. This changed in 1990 when various communist factions formed United Left Front to work in tandem with the NC during Jana Andolan I. A departure from BP’s line was made by the NC triumvirate (Ganesh Man, KP Bhattarai and GP Koirala) and for good reason.

The proponents of constitutional monarchy should bear in mind that the reconciliation offer was never reciprocated by the palace. Only the necessity of time and circumstances loosened up royal intransigence. Thus, the palace-centric politics continued even under the 1990 constitution that mentioned Nepali people as sovereign. Stooping low for power and privileges and with a view to currying favour of the King, party leaders made mockery of democracy. Good sense prevailed only after King Gyanendra pushed them to the brink, forcing the NC and other parties to make common cause with the Maoists against whom they themselves had been in war.

Nepali politics has undergone a sea change since the death of BP Koirala. Politicians cannot remain indifferent to the emerging trends and dynamics. If BP would have been in the PM’s place today, he would have charted the same course as his party has done, thus making NC relevant to new ground realities. Coalition politics has changed the landscape of Nepali politics. Without forming alliances and without adopting pro-people policies and programmes, no party can survive on the basis of its past glories.

In 1947, constitutional monarchy and multiparty system were the revolutionary agendas for the party but now monarchy has outlived its utility. Nor are the people prepared to accept monarchy in any form. My own understanding of Nepali politics prompted me to say a few years ago that the debate over the monarchical forms of government (absolute, semi-constitutional or constitutional) are meaningless because of the fast changing mindset of people and the dynamics of political forces.

With the changing contours of pro-people politics, NC cannot remain indifferent to its support-base of poor and deprived sections of society. Its recent decision to go republic along with the agenda of reconstruction of Nepali state for eliminating pervasive disparity has shown that it is alive to the emergent trends that espouse the concerns of the people in general.

Prof Baral is executive chairman, NCCS