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Nepal after monarchy is at risk of civil strife

Nepal after monarchy is at risk of civil strife
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First Published: Fri, Aug 08 2008. 01 14 AM IST

Updated: Fri, Aug 08 2008. 10 28 AM IST
The monarch has been deposed and a republican president installed. The world applauds or is indifferent. Let me be the voice of dissent. Nepal is making a profound mistake.
Fragile societies which have multiple fissures and fractures along ethnic, religious and social lines are far better off with a constitutional monarchy where the sovereign is a convenient and comfortable symbol transcending different groups within the country and providing a unifying symbol. By getting rid of the institution of monarchy, Nepal runs the risk of descending into chaos with endless fratricidal civil wars.
Remember Afghanistan had a king. It may not have been the greatest place to live, but at least there was a measure of peace, freedom and progress. The monarchy was eliminated and then began the long agony of the Afghan people who were now Khalq or Parcham supporters, Pusthuns, Tadzhiks or Hazaaras, but Afghans no longer. With all its faults, the existence of a constitutional monarchy would have enabled greater balance and harmony in a poor volatile country.
The British were (and hopefully still are) a clever people. The most sensible thing they did after the Cromwellian interregnum was the restoration of their monarchy. Once they had established that absolute monarchy was dead, they saw the value of a legitimate, symbolic head for the English people. Britain has retained an amazing stability as a society in substantial measure because of the continuance of the monarchy. France has seen several republics and more constitutions because after the revolution, they were unable and unwilling to have an act of healing which is implied by the word “restoration”. In Belgium, the only Belgian is the king. The rest are either Flems or Walloons and if it had become a republic, the country would have split long ago to the economic and social detriment of all its residents. Closer home, Thailand is a good example of a country that has preserved stability and embraced prosperity under a universally revered king. It is not a coincidence that a Moslem army chief in Thailand dutifully bowed before his sovereign. The jury is out on the crown prince who has many detractors. The Thais should in their own interests ensure that the institution of monarchy continues.
The recently deposed king of Nepal attracted a lot of hostility and his son, too, was widely unpopular. The sensible solution would have been to depose the king and replace him with a distant second cousin. Now that the position of the head of state has become part of the process of political controversy, Nepal could easily witness civil strife on a scale that can make the past few years appear peaceful. Already, the fact that the Madhesi vice-president refused to wear a Nepali cap and insisted on taking his oath in Hindi rather than Nepali has begun to generate political heat. A civil war with Gurkhas, Madhesis and various other groups on different sides with an overlaying patina of ideology (Maoism, socialism, etc.) can easily resemble Afghanistan’s descent into chaos, external intervention and endless internal fighting. As a well-wisher of Nepal one hopes this will not happen. As an objective observer, one is bound to predict that this is a high probability event.
The smartest thing that Franco did was to hand over nominal power to a king. The Spanish king has played a stabilizing influence and in fact is the key reason that Spain successfully transitioned into a democracy and eventually into the European Economic Community (forerunner of the European Union) as a constructive member. The king used his personality and neutral status to ensure that a putsch or a coup did not derail this process.
It is an interesting fact that in the first half of the 20th century, while Hindu-Moslem riots were frequent occurrences in British India, the princely states were largely free of this virus. Maharani Gayatri Devi writes in her autobiography as to how her husband, the Maharaja, personally intervened in order to ensure that such riots did not spread to Jaipur. Even though he was a devout Hindu, he saw that as his kingly obligation of impartiality vis-à-vis all his subjects. It was perfectly in order for Hindu maharajas in Mysore and Jaipur to have a Moslem prime minister like Sir Mirza Ismail and for the Moslem Nizam of Hyderabad to have a Hindu prime minister like Sir Kishen Prashad. Even in the dark days of 1948 when Kasim Rizvi and his Razakars were planning the establishment of a new Caliphate, the ordinary Hindu citizens of Hyderabad respected the Nizam personally and the Asaf Jahi dynasty. They attributed his vacillation to the evil influence of his advisers but not to the Nizam himself.
The monarchies of Oman, Kuwait and the Arab Emirates have proved themselves much more tolerant, progressive and citizen-friendly than the republican dictatorships that were established in countries such as Egypt and Iraq. One could even argue that the Shah’s dispensation in Iran was better for half its citizens (women) than the present dispensation!
In the first decade of the 21st century, it might seem strange to defend the seemingly anachronistic institution of monarchy. Clearly, a monarch is not needed in mature civil societies and functioning democracies. But where fragility and heterogeneity dominate the social landscapes, there is a strong case for preserving that aspect of society which provides an element of unity, continuity and apolitical harmony. Is it too late for the Nepalese to reconsider their decision?
Jaithirth Rao, a former banker and technology entrepreneur, divides his time between Mumbai, Lonavla and Bangalore. Respond to this column at conservativecorner@livemint.com.
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First Published: Fri, Aug 08 2008. 01 14 AM IST