Post-Panchayat calls for a more active monarchy have been invariably equated with an invitation to resurgent authoritarianism. Over the past three months, the prospect of an emergence of a more assertive king has transformed budding anxiety into deepening paranoia among the major political parties.
The Nepali Congress suffers most acutely from this malady. Part of the psychosis is rooted in its past. The party provided Nepal's first elected government, which succumbed to royal assertiveness in a country struggling with the internal dynamics of change amid the chill of the cold war. The Nepali Congress takes pride in claiming that it is the only party that has unequivocally supported the monarchy in good times and bad. But it is also the only party that has made attempts on the life of the personification of the institution.
Congress leaders can sing praises to the crown in the same breath they exalt the man executed for hurling that grenade at the king's jeep in Janakpur 40 years ago. Deep down, Congress leaders know it is this dexterity that drives much of their dread.
Communists cannot afford to renounce their ultimate objective of republicanism without risking their identity. When UML leaders appear to be able to work comfortably with the palace or lend critical support to the constitution they helped draft, they may look like hypocrites. But you have to remember they are also incorrigible idealists striving for state-sponsored internationalism in an era of capitalism-driven globalisation. As long as a world without political borders remains a mirage, the communists' obsession with republicanism should not restrain their ability to act as responsible participants in today's polity.
To be sure, the tragic circumstances that led to King Gyanendra's accession have widened the scope of public debate on republicanism. But let's not forget that it was his grandfather, King Tribhuvan, who introduced the word "ganatantra" as the guiding philosophy of post-1951 Nepali politics. (For the record, it must be stated that BP Koirala later recalled that he thought he was using the correct Nepali word for democracy while drafting the royal proclamation, and took full responsibility for this "honest mistake.")
The convoluted commentaries and conflicting conspiracy theories that have convulsed Nepalis after the Narayanhiti tragedy may eventually prove to be beneficial in healing the national psyche. People used to hearing good things about the late heir-apparent refuse to believe he could have carried out the killings. Those brought up hearing bad things about the survivors refuse to believe that it was only good luck that saved them. People who have already made up their minds so decisively either way cannot be expected to condemn or absolve anybody based on rational judgement. Even in a mock trial by peers, this case almost certainly would have led to a hung jury. Since a defining feature of monarchy is continuity, conspiracy theories make it easier for those who want to make a speedy recovery from the trauma and then move on.
Supporters of the current polity ask the Maoists to look at the monarchy and multiparty democracy within Nepal's geo-political context. No matter how much we deride the "air-and-water compatibility" theory Panchayat ideologues tried to force down our throats for three decades, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba is using similar arguments to exclude the monarchy from the agenda of talks with the Maoists. When Comrade Rohit says he sees no material difference between having a king or a president in the Nepali context, you can figure out which side he's on. For someone who talks for hours each day with people from different walks of life, it isn't difficult for King Gyanendra to measure the challenge he faces in winning the hearts and minds of Nepalis. For most Nepalis over the age of 25, it shouldn't be difficult to conclude that the ground the new king stands on is no more fragile than where his brother stood for the first two years after the restoration of multiparty democracy.
King Gyanendra has been quoted by many who have met him as saying that the personality of the person wearing the crown goes on to define the role the king plays. That is a harmless statement when you consider that today's constitution provides enough room for an active monarch. By exercising his prerogative to be consulted, the responsibility to warn and the right to encourage, King Gyanendra can help politicians drive democracy and development together without stepping out of the constitution. While standing aside from politics, the monarch can intervene to break the deadlock that seems to grip every form of government-majority, minority and coalition-with the same venality. If the king crossed the red line to provide the last line of defence in a politically fragmented country, the people would understand.
The problem is with our politicians, who prefer to see our democracy sculpted in the Westminster image. A more relevant model may be Thailand's. King Bhumibol Adulyadej once said, "In order to be King, you have to be King 24 hours a day." Such activism has represented stability amid Thailand's tumult. And that may be why the fact that the 18-year-old Bhumibol came to the throne in 1946, after the still-unexplained gunshot death of his brother, King Ananda Mahidol, is hardly brought up for discussion.
Nepalis know they have the ultimate right to choose between keeping a constitutional monarchy and turning the country into a republic. The problem arises when politicians want the people to retain the monarchy as well as the right to choose the person who sits on the throne. The Narayanhity carnage continues to test our understanding of the limits of democracy.