Friday, October 26, 2001

A Royal Dashain Gift

Declaring Paras as heir to the throne of Nepal, King Gyanendra has made big news when newsrooms in Nepal remain closed for Dashain celebrations. A perfect gift any father would give his son, but a shrewd instance of the control of information and public opinion in this case.

by  Dharma Adhikari

For King Gyanendra, sooner is better than later. Five months after the bloody massacre of the a royal family, the new King declared yesterday his controversial son Paras the Crown Prince and the heir to the Throne of the Himalayan Kingdom.

The King’s announcement comes at a time when the citizens of Nepal are celebrating a week-long Dashain festival, a time when all newspapers halt their publication. The King had earlier said that he would not rush to announce heir to the throne but would do so at an appropriate time. For the King, Danshain, a celebration of good over evil, seems to be that appropriate time.

At least, during this time, citizens have little time for political actions, if not issues. Paras is implicated in several hit and run incidents over the years and the public may not be ready yet to forget the past and discard frustration over the royal announcement. Public protests and demonstrations are likely to follow once the greatest Nepali festival is over by Oct end.

The calculated timing of the announcement has, however, done little to effect the flow of news in the international media. Newspapers and news portals have picked up wire service dispatches, with the new Crown Prince’s portrait in official robes. The reports carry details about the gruesome royal massacre as background, with little, if any, information about the various facets of the Prince’s life. The narrow, one-dimensional take of Paras is focused on his alleged criminal past, mostly involving hit and run incidents.

In journalistic terms, what is missing is the complete profile of the Prince, who is poised to become the King of Nepal some day.

Now that Paras has been declared the heir apparent, his personal history may look for many as irrelevant or secondary. Moreover, given the increasing consensus among the elite circles and power quarters, on the need to preserve monarchy for the unity of an ethnically diverse nation, Paras’ past may soon be superseded by his symbolic stature. Aside from this, the fleeting nature of Nepali public opinion, the revered status of Hindu monarchy, the legitimacy of the tradition of patriarchic succession, strong allegiance to constitutional monarchy from political parties of all shades and colors, except for the ambivalent Maoists, and the external political developments are all in favor of Prince Paras.

However bitter this might sound to anti-monarchists or Maoists, there is also not much room left for the supporters of the royal institution or the Narayan Hiti to rejoice at the moment.

It is not unnatural for any father to forgive his wayward son, and to provide him a Dashain gift fit for a prince. The fact that King Gyanendra declared his son as the future King is also not surprising; sooner or later he would, any way. The issue is not much about yesterday, but about tomorrow. The issue is what lies ahead, how the institution of monarchy will improve upon the past, and how the Durbar, the political parties, civil society, citizens, and above all the media will play their role for a common cause.

The enhanced symbolic status of the Prince may further work to project his past, grubby acts as childish, or rather adolescent misdemeanors. But there is no guarantee that declaring him heir will make a mature, disciplined, and responsible person of him. The issue is to advance hope and eliminate gloom, remedy the blunders and plant rectitude. And Dashain, coincidently or deliberately, is a perfect opportunity for such a resolve.

Secretive Palace, Morbid Democracy, & Idle Journalism
Within three months of assuming the throne, King Gyanendra had given half a dozen media interviews, and appeared in several photo ops. A rare move in Nepal’s monarchial tradition. Many analysts have touted his managerial skills, and it seemed that his courtship of media was part of his management style, though initially it might have appeared as an image building effort. That, however, did not extend to other members of the family. The public knows very little about the future King, but too much about a part of Paras. Also, very little is known about the India-born Crown Princess Himani, and princess Prerna.

Who is responsible for this? The palace for not releasing their complete resumè? Making the news when the newsrooms are closed? The media for not making the scoop? For not planting a deep-throat at the palace or establishing a regular palace beat? The public for not demanding to know, early on. Or for swinging where their whims take them? If the media, as watchdogs, were responsible enough, the June tragedy would have hardly happened without a clue. The whole controversy about the Kantipur op-ed, now seems comical to many hardworking journalists not only because the government withdrew the case, but also because the armchair opinion article by Babu Ram worked as if it were some hard-won investigative enterprise from the newspaper’s own staff.

Feeding emotions, not reasoned details has added morbidity to the already ailing democracy. The Maoists have received more nuanced coverage for some time now than many other important, regular headlines. Other problems such as the Bhutanese Refugees, the never subsiding Nepal-India tensions, or water issues have been followed up regularly, and sometimes thoroughly. The structural dynamics of and interactions between political and democratic institutions have been gravely neglected.

The media, one of those democratic institutions, have not been able to mediate things in a balance. Just complaining about people’s right to know and feeding on officialese does not fulfill their watchdog role. The late King Birendra might have appeared reclusive since the restoration of democracy in 1990, but that does not prove that he desired to withdraw from the public view, or was determined to keep journalists at bay, rather it shows how little the media cared to approach the palace for coverage. News does not walk up to journalists to beg to be covered.

Similarly, the media saw no reason to regularly provide updates and follow-ups on Crown Prince Dipendra. And when things happened the way they did, the media, no less than the public, found itself in disbelief. A democratic media, and not a lazy one at that, would have managed to provide a clue a week ago on the possible royal announcement of the future King of Nepal.

If the palace is to be reformed as much as it is to be made secure, it must, of course, devise a mechanism for smooth and unhindered flow of information, such as by instituting a professional spokesperson for the palace. Democracy or constitutional monarchy cannot function well if transparency is dishonored. Pathetic it may sound, even the correspondents of the reputed international wire services, some of them based in Kathmandu and emulated by the local press, have not been able to deliver much. There is very little in their reports that indicate the strength of their palace contacts.

One plain example: How old is Paras? Reuters reports he is 29, AP writes he is 30 and Kyodo says he is 28. Blame the wire correspondents in the capital? Or the government’s information department, or the palace secretariat?  Who forced them to report things before they could make sure they were reporting accurately. What is also missing, in these reports is the new Crown Prince’s personal, educational, marital, and professional background.

If the giant media houses cared, because they have better resources, they would interview or report about not only King Gyanendra but also Paras and Himani and Prerna. The lesson from the June massacre:  The whole royal family should be in public scrutiny, under constant media vigilance.

Citation: "The Palace and the Media: The Royal Dashain Gift,", Oct 26, 2001.