While the aloofness from the public behind dark glasses – the signature of King Mahendra – has long been abandoned by his son King Birendra, his advisers over at the Narayanhiti Royal Palace in Kathmandu have not been able to stitch new clothes for the monarchy in the seven years of democracy. Rather than tailoring a useful social and cultural role for the monarchy, which would make its position unassailable much like the royalty of Spain, Japan or Thailand, the king´s advisers have been much too timid, and have lately been engaged in unnecessary brinkmanship. This stands amply exposed in the way they had the Nepali monarch attend to Hindu conservatives in India in October. The king and his queen, Aishwarya, made a trip to Hardwar-on-Ganga to inaugurate a convention on Hinduism, attended among others by the radical leadership of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party. This was an incongruous political gesture from the king for he cannot have been unaware of the narrow-minded and reactionary Hinduism espoused by those present, which is so different from the syncretistic hill Hinduism that has evolved in Nepal.
It is important for King Birendra not to exaggerate his country´s Hindu-ness, for Nepal is less ´Hindu´ than is believed by many (the population itself is about 70 percent Hindu rather than 90 percent which is the general belief). However, the very demarcation between who is Hindu and who Buddhist is so blurred in these hills of the Central Himalaya that such categorisation may be impossible and even irrelevant. The obscure edges between the two main faiths should be allowed to remain fuzzy, and the monarchy should help in that.
Meanwhile, outspoken Hindus of India who take pride in Nepal´s identity as “the only Hindu kingdom in the world” should know, especially in these days of politicised religion, that Nepal is a developing country with diverse population groups, one that is governed very much along secular lines, with constitutional guarantees of religious freedom. The decisive interpretation of the provision in the new constitution of 1990 which refers to the Nepali state´s Hindu-ness is that Nepal is a “Hindu kingdom” not because the population of Nepal or the national polity is ´Hindu´, but because the country has a king who is Hindu.
Nepal´s monarchy commands unquestioning respect from almost the entire population, and is the ideal institution to promote progressive activities in the social, economic and cultural arenas. The monarchy as a whole or individuals within it could easily don roles as patrons and promoters in a variety of areas from education to public health, agricultural advancement to tourism and environment. They could bring their image and position to bear on day-to-day issues that will benefit Nepal´s overwhelming poor.
Unfortunately, even without the dark glasses, the monarchy continues to project an aloof persona. Past experience has shown how the Nepali public values greatly a natural smile, an impromptu gesture from King Birendra (as seen on Nepal Television), but they come too few and far between. This is because the king is not allowed to mingle. The ´handlers´ of the monarchy have yet to understand the changed situation and develop a self-confidence in developing a non-political, cultural role for the king.
The king´s brother Prince Gyanendra, otherwise sometimes controversial, is perhaps the only individual to have picked up a ´theme´ for himself in national affairs. During the Panchayat years, he actively promoted wildlife conservation, but he too has been ´wasted´ since Panchayat´s demise, unable to raise a profile due to fear of political backlash of commoner politicians.
Keeping a very correct posture of non-involvement in politics, it should be possible for the Nepali royalty now to venture into the cultural arena. Such a new role would also provide an opportunity for the royalty to make up for the ruination brought upon the country by its active role as part the Panchayat system. It is the statis of the Panchayat years since the mid-1970s, after all, which explains the socio-economic rockbottom conditions that Nepalis are experiencing today.
King Birendra is secure enough in his kingdom that he is free to explore what non-political agenda he may promote as ceremonial head of state. Those who feel insecure are in the circle around the king, who have lost the reflected power they wielded during the Panchayat years. The interest of these individuals lies in the palace continuing to play a political game, for that is where they can play Machiavelli. It is up to the king and his family to define a new social and cultural role for themselves, one that renders them socially productive – rather than don religiosity in a neighbouring country.