As the clock ticked down to the final few moments of the four-year-old Constituent Assembly, most Nepalis were still hopeful, given their leaders’ time-honored tradition of 11th hour agreements, some kind of a deal could still be reached by the end of May 27. But when news started filtering in that the political parties had failed to agree on a constitution, soon followed by the bombshell of Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai’s announcement of new CA polls, the look on the face of most Nepalis was of utter dejection. Four years of relentless mudslinging, dirty power games, crippling bandas and lengthy parleys, held everywhere from Singha Durbar to swanky hotels in the capital’s outskirts; in the end, it had all come to a naught. But while the moment represented probably the lowest of the lows in Nepal’s road towards democracy and equal society, a small section might well have been toasting champagnes as the clock struck midnight: the monarchists.
The constituency of monarchy has significantly dwindled since king Gyanendra dismissed elected parliament to assume executive powers in 2005. But the biggest blow to the institution was undoubtedly the 2001 royal massacre; the cloud of suspicion under which Gyanendra ascended the throne only made more menacing by people’s reluctance to let Gyanendra (suspected of shady business dealings) and crown prince Paras (notorious for his drunk driving escapades) assume the reins. In 2008, the Constituent Assembly established on the back of the 19-day Jana Andolan II hammered the final nail in the coffin of the 238-year monarchy in Nepal. As the Interim Constitution clearly provisions for a republican Nepal, there is no way back for Gyanendra and his family. That has not stopped the monarchists from raising plenty of hard questions over the legitimacy of the political parties and continued relevance of the institution of monarchy as a unifying force. The republican-monarchy debate is less contested in Britain, for the institution seems to be alive and kicking in the United Kingdom. Latest polls find that seven in 10 Britons believe monarchy is good for the country; only 22 percent are for abolition.
For four days starting June 2 Britons have been celebrating the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II’s ascent to the British throne. Among the long list of programs outlined for the occasion: a ‘Big Lunch’ to be observed by people across the country, a rock concert, lighting of thousands of Jubilee beacons, all neatly capped by Royal Air Force fly-past in London on July 5. One of the big reasons for British monarchy’s high poll numbers is Queen Elizabeth II, who has been one of the least controversial monarchs in British history. She seems to have well understood the place of a constitutional monarch and is in tune with public sentiments. Popular measures like her offer to start paying taxes (the royal palace was exempted from taxes until 1992) and her decision to open up her official residences to the public to raise some money for the upkeep of the royal family have also gone down well with the public.
Not that the institution lacks its detractors. Although poll numbers might currently favor monarchy under Elizabeth, the numbers are grim for future reign of dour Prince Charles. The crown prince’s affair with his childhood sweetheart Camilla Parker Bowles is believed to have caused untold misery to Diana, the Princess of Wales who enjoyed widespread popularity among the Brits. Diana’s tragic death in a car crash in 1997 only sharpened Charle’s image of an uncaring husband. It is for this reason that many Britons believe the crown should be passed down a generation, to Prince Williams, Charles’ elder son. With Elizabeth out of the scene (she is already 86), Britain’s love affair with monarchy might also precipitously decline (as polls indicate). The republicans indeed make a strong case: hereditary monarchy, which privileges people on the basis of birth rather than qualifications, is anachronistic to a 21st century Britain and should be confined to history books.
Halfway around the world in Nepal, monarchists have again started asking for a referendum to settle the fate of monarchy. Their argument rests on results of polls like one held in 2008: the Asia Foundation and DFID funded nationwide poll found that nearly 50 percent of the 3,000 people surveyed in 75 districts wanted ‘a place for the institution of monarchy in the future,’ while just 38 percent wanted scrapping of monarchy altogether. Short of a referendum, there might be no way to find out if those poll numbers still hold. Yet given monarchy’s checkered history in Nepal, its frequent meddling in functioning of sovereign democratic institutions, and its role in subjugation of a large section of the national population, its return will be hard to justify.
As Queen Elizabeth II celebrates 60 years on British throne, there has been renewed scrutiny on the hallowed British institution as well. Those in favor of monarchy argue that the institution’s symbolic role is vital for a country struggling to come to terms with its dwindling standing in the world following the demise of its vast empire.
They believe monarchy’s role as a unifying force in divisive British politics is far from over. Besides, the British royalty helps attract tourists from all over the world: people are still eager to tour the seat of one of the most potent empires in world history (Buckingham Palace and its changing of guards ceremony might be one of the biggest draws in the world.) Given these realities, an immediate abolition of the British monarchy is unlikely. But with Queen Elizabeth gone, its foundations will look shaky. As Gyanendra must have found out it is hard to justify unearned privileges when you don’t measure up in the public eye