Loyal readers will remember royal leaders we have covered in these pages over the past two decades. The uneasy transition to constitutional monarchy post-1990, the conflict, the palace massacre of 2001, the attempt by King Gyanendra to repeat his father’s coup in 2005, and finally the abolition of the monarchy in 2008.
History keeps repeating itself in Nepal. And once again, we are coming full circle with street demonstrations in support of a return to monarchy and a Hindu state.
It is significant that the rallies are happening in the run-up to the 60th anniversary of King Mahendra’s putsch against Nepal’s first democratically elected government led by Prime Minister B P Koirala on 15 December 1960.
The current series of protests began in Butwal last month, and moved around the country with a rally in Kathmandu on Monday. They were organised by disparate groups, with tacit support from the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP).
The RPP had not, till now, openly joined the demonstrations. That would have been odd because the demonstrators had called for an end to federalism, and the RPP has one seat in the Federal Parliament. But it has now asked party members to show up for rallies planned for 4 and 5 December in Hetauda and Jhapa, which will see addresses by RPP leaders like Kamal Thapa, Prakash C Lohani and Pashupati Shumsher Rana.
There is speculation about why royalists and the Hindu-right have chosen this particular time for a show of force. Obviously, they see an opening in the political space – the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) is mired in endless infighting, and the main opposition Nepali Congress is leaderless and rudderless.
The RPP emerged as the fourth-largest party after the UML, NC and the Maoists in the 2013 Constituent Assembly election, and the party leaders quite rightly seem to surmise that since the other parties have had their chance in government multiple times and squandered their mandate, their time has come.
RPP rallies this past month have been well-attended, even though the public is not spontaneously joining in on the flag-waving in large numbers, as the organisers claim. Even so, the crowds represent disillusionment with the past two-and-half years of NCP misrule, factionalism, corruption and poor management of the Covid-19 crisis.
The main demands of the demonstrators have been the restoration of the monarchy, and scrapping provisions in the 2015 Constitution that turned Nepal into a federal, secular republic. Past public opinion polls by this paper have shown that while there is not much mass support for a re-thronement of King Gyanendra, there is a sizeable component of the population that is for Nepal becoming a Hindu state again.
In a way, the RPP is testing the waters to see if a Hindu monarchy can be a viable electoral plank for the next federal and local elections in 2022. Enthused by the unexpected numbers at rallies, the party is now openly leading a street campaign to stoke populist passions at a time when the NCP and NC are both distracted by their internal squabbles. The RPP believes it can end the current anarchy with a stable monarchy.
It’s not that the RPP is not faction-ridden like the rest, it has had frequent splits and reunifications over the past 10 years. There has been tension between those who want Nepal to only become a Hindu state but are not as enthusiastic about the monarchy, and others who want both.
In September, this led Sunil Thapa, son of five-time Prime Minister Surya Bahadur Thapa, to defect from the RPP to the NC. RPP leader Kamal Thapa has himself been lukewarm towards monarchy, but now favours a ceremonial or constitutional kingship.
The other overarching issue is disenchantment with democracy itself, and the argument that a visionary charismatic leader is better than the current cabal under a western-style parliamentary system. Lending force to this argument is the erosion of democratic values under Prime Minister Modi in India, as well as China’s rising economic and political clout. This coincides with the weakening of the West, which had till recently been giving powerful backing for democracy, press freedom, human rights and secularism.
Whatever happens in India has a gravitational pull in Nepal, and the BJP’s Hindu-right ideology could be another factor that has emboldened the RPP. Some rally organisers in Nepal are groups that seem to be offshoots of Hindutva elements across the border. However, this convergence has its limits since at some point India’s Hindu juggernaut would collide with RPP’s ultra-nationalist platform.
Even as the ruling NCP’s infighting gets more heated, however, the ruling party may be saved from a split because of the RPP’s activism. There is nothing like a common outside enemy to unite a party. Unwittingly, Kamal Thapa may be giving his old coalition colleague K P Oli some breathing space.