The Challenge to Democracy in Nepal: A Political History

By T. Louise Brown | Go to book overview

4

King Birendra and the reformedPanchayat System

Supporters of democracy placed great faith in Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev when he succeeded to the throne upon the death of his father in 1972. He was young and approachable, and democrats anticipated a refreshing and original style of politics. Educated in the West, at Eton and Harvard, and then at Tokyo University, Birendra was believed to be a democrat and to have absorbed western, liberal values. But the new king did not usher in a democratic system and those who hailed his accession as the beginning of a new era soon had their illusions dispelled. Birendra may have dropped hints about his democratic sympathies during his perambulations around august foreign educational establishments, but he was converted to the panchayat mentality once back in Nepal.

Mahendra’s legacy to his son was a consolidated Panchayat System, the absence of an effective political opposition and a poverty-stricken nation. Birendra chose to perpetuate this status quo. He affirmed his faith in the Panchayat System but offered a few crumbs of comfort to democrats by declaring that the system was capable of a degree of evolutionary change. In reality Birendra ruled in the manner of his father—that is, by peremptory command. His word was final and binding and all authority was concentrated in the monarch.

The fiction of panchayat democracy persisted. There was a parliament, a Cabinet and there was even a prime minister, but the edifice was a sham. Its structure and ethos were permeated by sycophantic support for the monarchy. The real locus of power lay not with the ‘democratically’ elected panchayat leaders, but with the parallel, unofficial government constituted by the overwhelmingly more powerful Palace Secretariat. Birendra’s accession to the throne led to a shift of power away from the Central Secretariat, so heavily favoured by his father. Mahendra had relied upon the bureaucracy and had manipulated it in order to consolidate his personal control. But, despite Mahendra’s

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