King Mahendra

King Mahendra (1920-1972) was the ninth Shah dynasty ruler of Nepal. The period of his rule (1955-1972) was marked by a wide variety of experiments in political systems and approaches to economic and social development.

King Mahendra (Bir Bikram Shah Dev), the ninth Shah (Gorkha) dynasty ruler of Nepal, was born in Kathmandu on July 11, 1920, the eldest son of King Tribhuvan and Queen Kanti. Mahendra's first three decades were a period in Nepal's history when the Shah dynasty ruled in name only and political authority was held by the Rana family. Mahendra was not allowed to participate in the political or social life in Kathmandu except under strict Rana supervision, nor did he attend a "modern" educational institution in Nepal, India, or abroad as did many of the sons of elite families prior to 1950. This sense of exclusion and deprivation, intellectually and politically, strongly influenced his political views and values even after the overthrow of the Rana "system" in 1951.

Mahendra married Indra R. L. Rana in 1940. She bore him three sons and three daughters before her death in 1950. Mahendra then married Indra's sister, Ratna R. L. Rana, in December 1952—over opposition from political party leaders and, reportedly, from his father King Tribhuvan because she came from a powerful branch of the Rana family. This was one of the first occasions on which Mahendra demonstrated the determination to make his own decisions, a characteristic evident after he came to the throne.

King Tribhuvan died on March 14, 1955, and Mahendra succeeded him on the throne. The period from the overthrow of the Ranas in 1951 until 1955 had been a transitional phase in Nepal's politics with no constitution, no elected parliament, and no responsible cabinet system. The executive, nominally acting under the authority of the monarch, was composed of various political party leaders who were, in fact, responsible to no one but lacked much political clout. King Tribhuvan was reluctant to assert a forceful role for the monarchy, but gradually felt compelled to do so. The government of India, which had "supervised" the replacement of the Rana system in 1951, found it necessary to serve as the power behind the throne in the Nepalese government whenever decisions had to be made.

King Mahendra, in contrast to his father, was not prepared to see such a tenuous political system prolonged and introduced a series of experiments shortly after ascending the gaddi (throne). His first step (1956) was a purge of the bureaucracy with the objective of making it a more efficient body in the implementation of policies—for example, Nepal's first five-year plan. By 1959 he had, on his own initiative, introduced a parliamentary-type constitution that was largely modelled on India's democratic constitution, but with some protection for the institution of the monarchy. In the spring of 1959 Nepal's first free popular election based on universal franchise was held. The Nepali Congress Party swept two-thirds of the seats in the election, and the leader of the party, B. P. Koirala, was appointed prime minister. King Mahendra assumed the largely titular head of state position given the monarchy under the 1959 constitution, did not intervene with the governance of the country, and spent most of his time touring Nepal or travelling abroad.

King Mahendra noted with some apprehension, however, the ways in which the Nepali Congress was concentrating political power in its hands. Presumably because of fear about the future of the monarchy under these circumstances, Mahendra used the emergency powers given the ruler in the 1959 constitution to suspend the constitution, arrest most of the government leaders, conduct a wholesale purge of the bureaucracy, and concentrate political authority in his own hands. He then introduced in 1962 a new constitutional system based—in theory—on the traditional Hindu social/political institution, the Panchayat (Council of Five). The underlying objective of Panchayat Raj (Rule by Panchayats) was to be the decentralization of political power. As it worked out in reality, however, it constituted a centralization of power, with the final voice on almost any decision, no matter how trivial, resting with the palace and the group of high bureaucrats who served as the principal consultants to the king on policy matters.

By the time of King Mahendra's death on January 31, 1972, there were evident strains and deficiencies in the constitutional and political system he had constructed in the 1960s. In his final years Mahendra amended the 1962 constitution and made some efforts to bring talented and experienced officials into the key positions in the administrative process. But this had limited effect on the political system, which remained authoritarian, with the monarch as the fulcrum around which everything moved. It was quite evident by the time of his death that more basic political changes were required to meet the demands of an increasingly complex and developing society.

King Mahendra's reign, 1955-1972, was notable for a wide variety of experiments in political systems, ranging from the classically Western democratic parliamentary system to more authoritarian political structures based, in theory at least, on traditional Hindu concepts and institutions. There was a similar openness to different approaches to economic and social development—for example, moderate but pragmatic land reform and legal code liberalization programs. At all times, however, Mahendra maintained a special concern for the viability of the monarchical system.


Further Reading on King Mahendra

While there is no unofficial biography on King Mahendra as yet, several studies of Nepali politics during his regnum focus on his critical role. Some of these with diverse analyses of his rule include: Pashupate S. J. B. Rana and Karmal P. Malla, Nepal in Perspective (1973); Anirudra Gupta, Politics in Nepal (1964); and Bhuwan Lal Joshi and Leo E. Rose, Democratic Innovations in Nepal (1966).

Additional Biography Sources

Shaha, Rishikesh, Three decades and two kings (1960-1990): eclipse of Nepal's partyless monarchic rule, New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1990.