Nepal king, PM continue rivalry for religious role

By Sudeshna Sarkar, IANS

Kathmandu : Though the era of all-powerful kings has given way to an all-powerful prime minister’s rule in Nepal, premier Girija Prasad Koirala still faces an uphill task vanquishing King Gyanendra’s charisma among devout Hindus.

Support TwoCircles

The monarch, whose dynasty was once revered as the incarnation of a Hindu god and who, till two years ago, had his feet bathed in public by former army generals and powerful politicians from neighbouring India, has seen an upsurge in popularity again, thanks to a long religious festival.

On Friday, the last day of Dashain, Nepal’s biggest Hindu festival celebrated for 10 days, Koirala is expected to once again cross swords with the king over a traditional rite.

After usurping the king’s powers as head of army and state, the prime minister has now trained his sights on a ritual started 19 years ago by the present king’s brother, slain King Birendra, to appease gods after a devastating earthquake.

Birendra began the worship of the Navdurga — nine Hindu goddesses of power — in the temple town of Bhaktapur in 1988.

However, after the fall of King Gyanendra’s army-backed government last year and the new constitution deciding to suspend the institution of monarchy till the election, the octogenarian Koirala will attend Friday’s ceremony in Bhaktapur as well as another traditional rite in the capital, which formally brings the Dashain festivities to an end.

While for nearly two years the king allowed the new government to strip him of all political power and privileges, he has resisted the move to isolate him from Hindu festivals, continuing the traditional worship.

Though the king now worships as a commoner, the welcome given to the royal couple shows the crown still holds a special place in Nepal’s Hindu culture.

On Friday, after Koirala’s visit to Bhaktapur and the Kathmandu temple, King Gyanendra will also go to the two traditional sites.

“We have been asked to stay back for the king’s visit by the palace,” a priest at the Bhaktapur Navdurga temple said. “We are open to anyone who wants to come, be it Girija or the Raja (king).”

While the king’s visits are regarded as his fight to preserve the relevance of monarchy in Hindu-majority Nepal, questions are, however, being raised about Koirala’s continued temple visits.

People are questioning the former trade union activist’s priorities.

With the Koirala government last year declaring Nepal — till then the world’s only Hindu kingdom — a secular state, it is being asked why he has begun attending all Hindu festivals.

“The prime minister who would be king,” commented the Nepali weekly Samay, coming down heavily on the premier as “unsuccessful” and “without a conscience”.

Attending the Friday festivals is regarded as a thoughtless act with the government in the throes of a crisis and facing another one in three days’ time.

Protests began Thursday after the government decided to hike fuel prices. In the past, these protests had the power to shake governments and force ministers to quit.

Also, the parliament will Monday resume a debate on the Maoists’ demand to scrap the monarchy immediately.

If the government loses the debate, it will lose the support of the international community. If it wins, it will trigger another revolt by the Maoists.

Till Thursday, Koirala could not reach a compromise with the guerrillas, nor could he decide fresh dates for the critical election that has been put off twice.