| Zahir Shah (centre) with Hamid Karzai and Manmohan Singh, 2005
Kings are not in fashion. Certainly not while alive and reigning. When dead, it’s another matter as the obsequies of Afghanistan’s Mohammed Zahir Shah demonstrated. The rapture with which he was greeted after 29 years of exile and the mourning at his passing recalled Charles II’s remark at the Restoration, “I doubt it has been my fault, that I have been absent so long for I see nobody that does not protest he has ever wished for my return.”
However fervently Afghans may have welcomed Zahir Shah back in 2002, it was not theirs to restore him to his throne. The Great Game removed him, through the agency of his army commander who was also his cousin and brother-in-law. For all that George W. Bush now calls him “a monumental figure in Afghan history”, the monument was no more popular with the Americans than Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad. The king was too neutral, too friendly with the Soviet Union and too cordial to India during his 40-year reign. As the Pakistanis shrewdly noted, an Indian proposal that he be reinstated when Afghanistan was a land in search of a government was enough to seal his fate. The Great Game demanded a mujahedin to be deployed against the Soviets, never mind if it bred Osama bin Laden, al Qaida and taliban.
If kings suggest tyranny and righteous popular uprisings, that is only because we are emotional and intellectual prisoners of the French Revolution. Embedded in the popular unconscious is the conviction that the Jacobins were the people’s liberators and the guillotine the cure for despotism. The Romanov family’s fate confirmed that impression of royalty coming by its just deserts at the hands of a desperately exploited and at last awakened peasantry. Regicide was confirmed as the first rite of democracy, subsequent massacres of royalty in Iraq and Yemen reinforcing that lesson even though we would much rather seek our historical allegories in Europe than in the Middle East we exalt as west Asia.
Zahir Shah’s fall in 1973 moved All India Radio’s Debdulal Bandopadhyay to emotional chanting in Bengali about autocrats destined for disaster. That was because a mini Great Game was under way nearer home. Its official authors wrote the script Bandopadhyay recited. Sikkim’s chogyal had to be got rid of then, and even if Kabul didn’t provide a blueprint for Gangtok, it supplied New Delhi with an immediate precedent. So the singing and shuddering about thrones toppling in the dust, ending with a dramatic, “Oh chogyal! Have you not learnt your lesson yet'”
The propagandist theme of wicked kings overlooked kindly old Zahir Shah’s popularity with his subjects. His sacrifice at the behest of superior forces led to the train of fanaticism and violence that Hamid Karzai, a puppet king in cap and cloak, is in no position to end. The “people’s revolution” against the chogyal was equally phoney, masking not realpolitik but petty politicking. There’s another common factor. Deprived of his rightful title, Zahir Shah was anointed “Father of the Nation”. Palden Thondup Namgyal in adversity was declared the “First Gentleman of Sikkim”.
Of course, no such thing as divinity doth hedge a king. No more than democracy doth infuse a prime minister. When Indira Gandhi tried to soothe Zia-ul Haq’s ruffled feathers with the advice not to worry about the papers because they were calling him a democrat and her a dictator, the joke, alas, was on her. People don’t have to be born in the purple to be royal: Napoleon Bonaparte, Reza Shah Pahlavi and Bokassa were all men who would be king. Ayub Khan was reportedly another, persuaded by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto not to invent a crown. That’s one disclosure that hasn’t flowed from his son’s pen.
Yet, Gohar Ayub Khan need not feel embarrassed about his father’s yearning, for kingship is the story of man. Tribes need territory. Territory must cohere to survive. The combination of people and land calls for an identity. Imagined communities become tangible entities when the nation state is synonymous with a person. Nepal became a yam between two boulders only when Prithvinarayan united all the principalities.
Yugoslavia, now no more, was born in 1918 as the “Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes”. The hereditary monarchy gave way after the World War II to a Communist monarch whose white bemedalled uniforms, sword of state and heavy make-up made him far more regal than any Karageorgevich sovereign. Yugoslavia may not have splintered if Josip Broz Tito had lived or been succeeded by another resplendent Communist king.
Nor would Ethiopia have gained independence after the war if it had not been for a total identification with Haile Selassie whose stirring speech to the League of Nations (“The Ethiopian people are climbing alone their road to Calvary”) will be remembered when Mussolini and his aggression are forgotten. The Lion of Judah, like Zahir Shah, could not resist a global power: the Dergue that overthrew him provided the Soviet Union with an African foothold.
In contrast, the hard-pressed Communists who rule Laos have rediscovered Fa Ngum, 14th-century creator of the “Kingdom of the Million Elephants and White Parasol”. Five years ago they erected a huge bronze statue of him — in knee-length dhoti too! — in Vientiane. As for Laos’s own last king, Savang Vatthana, he was sent to a re-education camp in 1975 and never heard of again.
If kings go when they become inconvenient for more powerful others, they come when it is convenient for others too. When Britain wanted to guard the route to India and enjoy access to oil it created countries and foisted on them as kings strangers who had fled the Arabian peninsula. Syria quickly got rid of the Hashemite imposition; Iraq did so half a century later; half-English Abdullah of Jordan is the only surviving ruler of the land between the lines Winston Churchill drew in the sand with a ruler and called national boundaries.
By substituting election by the powerless many for anointing by the powerful few, democracy only provides a semblance of change. Everyone knows who appointed Pratibha Patil. Malaysia’s head of state also reigns for five years but rotates among the nine sultans and carries the title, Yang di-Pertuan Agong (paramount ruler). The United Arab Emirates has the best of all worlds. Its president is elected but is always the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi. Like the best of democracies, the UAE also elects a vice-president and prime minister, but both jobs go to the same person and he is always the Sheikh of Dubai.
Simeon, ex-tsar of Bulgaria, legitimately bridged the gulf between hereditary right and democratic politics by serving as elected prime minister for four years. His feat did not pave the way for the throne’s restoration but was regarded as a historical first. Nearer home, Amarinder Singh of Patiala repeated the performance in Punjab.
As for the future, with so many Britons uneasy about Elizabeth II’s heirs, even Farouk of Egypt’s royal quintet may look a trifle optimistic. The immediate question is: Which ninepin will fall next' India looks north. Where the Himalayas once held five kingdoms, there are now only two, although Bhutan’s two kings make for a total of three mountain monarchs.
The focus is on Nepal which offers three royals to be toppled or retained — Gyanendra, his son Paras and five-year-old Hridayendra. If all three are packed off, King Prachanda, whatever handle he might choose, will complete the cycle from King Prithviraj, proving “The accursed power which stands on Privilege/ And goes with women and champagne and bridge/ Broke — and Democracy resumed her reign/ Which goes with bridge and women and champagne.”