The Rise and Fall of the Rana Regime: A Machiavellian Analysis

SANKALPA KOIRALA*

Introduction

Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli (1469-1527),  was an Italian writer, best known for his scholarships on politics, based on pessimistic realism.[1] He intended to replace the ancient Christian thoughts with revolutionary doctrines of his own.[2] For Machiavelli, Christian ethics were used by “vile” men to interpret the religion according to ozio (laziness) rather than according to virtù (virtue).[3] His 500-year-old works still hold contemporary relevance, as they work as a guidance to leaders of all fields and not just of politics.[4] As per Machiavelli, for a leader, moving away from Christian values; immorality, cruelness and dishonesty are sometimes important as against morality, humbleness and honesty.[5]  He moved away from moralistic theory of politics.[6] However, Machiavelli didn’t endorse tyranny; instead, his works have been interpreted, showing him to be a republican or a democratic political theorist,[7] even if Stalin read him as a prophet of totalitarianism.[8]  Machiavelli favoured a republic rather than a principality.[9] Nevertheless, the Rana regime (1846-1951) in Nepal, although being a tyrannical regime, displayed a “machiavellian personality” to some extent, by their display of ruthlessness. While the regime did not entirely follow Machiavelli’s advice to a leader, as Machiavelli didn’t support a tyrannical regime, we can observe that Junga Bahadur Rana’s (1817-1877) choice of violence to instigate a reform in Nepali political system during late 1840s, shows some elements of Machiavelli’s advice to a leader.

Initiation of Ranarchy

Junga Bahadur Rana was a ruthless strategic thinker, who thought for the survival of a weakened Gorkha (Shah) Regime of Nepal. His “espionage mission” to England in 1850, with the intent to learn about Britain’s military might, so as to calculate the risk in trying to regain the lost territory of 1816[10] reflects some elements of a virtuous leader, in the eyes of Machiavelli as Machiavelli advocated for “manipulating strategies and techniques”,[11] especially, during diplomacy.[12] For him, “prudence” is being able to deceit. Prudence is not to be gauged with morality.[13]  England’s military strength made Junga Bahadur to ally with them. Thus, Nepal was able to be a sovereign nation, unlike semi-autonomous princely states in India.[14] Machiavelli saw a city (or state) to be a living organism which can grow and strengthen, through its expansion — and through expansion, one can gain “Roman greatness”: the highest greatness.[15] Junga Bahadur Rana, seems to be prudent in his undertakings and also seems to comply with Machiavelli’s idea of “greatness”, as he did think about expanding Nepali territory by getting back the land lost in 1816, but he was equally prudent so as to not create enmity with the Britishers, and thus didn’t try to regain the lost territory.

Machiavelli provided that love, religion and politics are languages of war, and religion: the art of peace.[16] From his writing of Mandragola, one can observe that “love” and “deceit” have been used for personal gains.[17] Machiavelli, in the Discourses, has even praised Numa Pompilius for faking a marriage for political purposes.[18] Junga Bahadur had also formed powerful alliances through matrimonial relations. His eldest son Jagat Jang was married to the eldest daughter of the monarch. Similarly, Junga Bahadur’s second son was married to another daughter of the monarch, while he himself had married the sister of Fateh Jang Cautariya, Hiranyagarbha Kumari. His daughters were married to prince Trailokya and other people who wielded political power. These matrimonial alliances later served as a factor, that forced King Surendra Bikram Shah to sign a Lal Mohar, which delegated a lot of essential powers to the Rana family.[19] Here too, one can observe Junga Bahadur’s compliance with Machiavelli’s opinion on love and political power.

The Parvas (Massacres) (1846-1847)

The Palace was filled with conspiracies after the assassination of Mathwar Singh Thapa, the then prime minister and after some time, the murder of Gagan Singh Thapa. Queen Rajya Laxmi summoned all courtiers to a Kot, wherein at the command of Junga Bahadur Rana, 55 courtiers were killed (Kot massacre). Junga Bahadur was then vested with civil, military and judicial powers and became the commander-in-chief. Initially, even the queen favoured Junga Bahadur Rana, so as to make her sons, the heir to the throne instead of her step-sons. However, Junga Bahadur later refused to kill Prince Surendra (step-son) at the queen’s command. The queen then plotted to poison and kill Junga Bahadur and appoint Bir Dhoj as the Mukhtyar.  However, already well known to the queen’s intent, Junga Bhadaur instead killed Bir Dhoj Basnet (Bhandarkhal massacre). King Rajendra issued a firman, deciding him and his family to go on a pilgrimage. A proclamation was also made, stating that the acts of Junga Bahadur was a consequence of the act of the queen-regent plotting against the crown prince, and that he was pardoned for the offences. The administration was left to Junga Bahadur. The queen was exiled and kith and kin of those who died in the kot massacre were prevented from entering the country, even at the request of the royal family. Regent Surendra also promised that in the name of God Pashupati and Goddesss Guyeshwari that the king would not harm the minister’s person and property. Further, the prime-minister (Junga Bahadur Rana) and his family were not subject to punishment. The prime-minister was delegated a lot of power and liberty. The loyal prince Surendra was made the King, after attempts of assassination on Junga Bahadur was made by the king and the queen from Varanasi. (Ex) King Rajendra wanted his throne back, while in Varanasi. Supporters of King Rajendra entered through Sugauli, looted the government treasury and stayed at Alau. However, he was caught trying to escape from the troops sent by Junga Bahadur Rana (Alau parva). Now, Junga Bahadur made King Surendra make a proclamation, citing Junga Bahadur’s loyalty to the crown; his foreign relations with East-India Company and the Chinese; his military capability; and declared that the position of prime-minister would always belong to his family. Thus began the hereditary family dictatorship of the Ranas.[20]

Through the Eyes of Machiavelli

The problems and disputes between and within the Shahs, Pandes, Thapas and Basnyats[21] caused the Ranas to come into power. Surrender of sovereign power by King Rajendra Bikram to Queen Rajya Laxmi, on January 5, 1845, weakened the throne. Machiavelli had provided that use of normal diligence is enough for a leader to retain his power, until and unless an extraordinary and extreme force deprives him of it. However, the leader is said to regain it when adversity strikes the usurper.[22]  In this scenario, one can observe how the monarchs; Rajendra, Surendra and even the Queen Rajya Laxmi, were not able to exercise their diligence to maintain or to retain their power from the Ranas.

Machiavelli largely worked on “conspiracies” and their role in the political playground. He mentioned in Discourses, that conspiracies are the utmost danger that a prince or subjects can face. His study of history showed that many princes have lost their lives and their states to conspiracies than to wars.[23] The Shah dynasty faced the same fate. The conspiracies in the palace eventually collapsed the throne. Machiavelli also provided how conspiracies can be useful. He gave the example of Oliverotto da Fermo, who had acquired a principate through crime of mass murder, which aligns with the act of Junga Bahadur Rana in the Kot massacre.[24] Agathocles, who committed mass murder at a gathering, is said by some authors to be fully virtuous in the eyes of Machiavelli.[25] A leader should be a step ahead of everyone to prevent any deceit from people around him,[26] which can also be seen on the part of Junga Bahadur, who escaped multiple assassination attempts.

While the idea of “virtue” in Machiavelli’s scholarships are not clear, it is clear that his definition of virtue was an explicit rejection that being good, in Christian sense, is the same as being virtuous.[27]  However, it is important to note that betrayal, killings, lack of compassion and belief is not exactly virtue, taking again, the example of Agathocles. Therefore, what is virtuous for Machiavelli is highly debatable.[28] For Machiavelli, man and god are separate actors.[29] Thus meaning that a man, or say a prince, should not be expected to act as morally as a god. There exists an inherent difference between how men “live” and how they “ought to live”. “There are two kinds of combat, one with laws, the other with force. The first is proper to man, the second to beasts; but because the first is often not enough, one must have recourse to the second.”[30] A good person will be destroyed by people around him who are not good.[31] He provides a realist’s point of view and suggests leaders to be stringent, complying with the reality while not being distracted by what “ought to be”. Junga Bahadur Rana, during the rise of the Rana regime, had done precisely this. Even if his acts were based on selfish motives, one can observe how his acts aligned with a realistic view of the political scenario of that time. Herein, the rise of power of Junga Bahadur, was a result of skill rather than of fortune. Just like in the case of Moses, Cyrus and Romulus, fortune granted nothing more than an opportunity.[32] The incompetence of the crown was an opportunity but the series of events show skill or rather virtue of Junga Bahadur Rana. Once such virtuous leaders establish themselves in power, it is rather easy for them to maintain such power. Leaders who came into power due to good fortune are said to wither away, in the first unfavourable weather. The reign of the Rana regime for more than a century shows “skill” (or virtue) rather than mere “fortune” of Junga Bahadur Rana and his successors.

“A prudent prince should not believe his enemies have forgiven him, neither should he believe everyone is his enemy.” [33]

As provided by Machiavelli, a successful prince should not rely on capricious fortune but should rely on his virtue to retain his powers,[34] which Junga Bahadur Rana did even after he had gotten more power than the King.[35]  Machiavelli further provided that, with new power comes new enemies. However, Junga Bahadur Rana had dealt with such enemies by removing them from the country. Nevertheless, he maintained alliance with Britishers towards the south. Through his diplomacy, Junga Bahadur had complied with the suggestion and warnings of Machiavelli, as he provides that even for democratic nations, self-sufficiency is not possible and diplomacy is important.[36]

Machiavelli’s prince can only acquire and maintain his principality based on beliefs and opinion of the people, rather than solely by the use of force. [37] “Belief”, as used by Machiavelli in his writings, was of religious nature. However, Nepal, having a large linkage with Hinduism, considered its monarchs to have divine power and to be an avatar of Lord Vishnu.[38]  Thus, belief in monarchy is not entirely a political belief but also a religious one. Junga Bahadur had here as well complied with the suggestion of Machiavelli and did not completely remove the system of monarchy but instead complied with the beliefs. The monarch had delegated its power, made the position of prime-minister a “family post”, pardoned Junga Bahadur for the massacres, etc. and remained vestigial in the functioning of the state rather than being non-existent. Therefore, belief of the people (in monarchy) was also complied with, during the rise of the regime.

Downfall of the Regime / Conclusion

Machiavelli provides that there exist two kinds of “humours”: a set of people who do not want to be controlled or oppressed and a set of people who want to command and oppress. Neither can be satisfied except at the expense of the other.[39] For a leader, it is better to be feared than to be loved.

Love is held by a chain of obligation, which, because men are wicked, is broken at every opportunity for their own utility, but fear is held by a dread of punishment that never forsakes you.”[40]

Analysing the Rana regime, it is seen that Machiavelli’s advice have been followed only during the rise of the Rana regime, by Junga Bahadur. Machiavelli says that a state can use whatever means, without the question of justice or injustice, kindness or cruelty, or to its praiseworthiness or ignominiousness. However, such means should be for a particular end i.e. liberty and freedom of a state and its citizens. When possible, a prince should act morally. Thus, being moral is a general rule and brutality should never be a norm. To be able to “not to do good” must depend on necessity.[41]  For Machiavelli, the ends determine the means and not the reverse.[42] Therefore, where the end is tyranny, the means is already a wrong. Brutality as a norm during the Rana regime was wrong in the view of Machiavelli. Further, the Rana regime’s isolationism policy delayed Nepal’s economic development. Closed-door policy by the Ranas in the fear of British expansionism,  was against Machiavelli’s idea of greatness of a state.[43]

If one considers everything well, one will find something appears to be virtue, which if pursued would be one’s ruin, and something else appears to be vice, which if pursued results in one’s security and well-being.[44]

Reserving the traditional notion of good and bad, the virtue, he recommends is a mixture of good and bad.[45] During the century-long Rana regime, the regime was more tilted towards his idea of “vice” which eventually lead to its downfall. Machiavelli’s virtuous leader avoids arousing hatred among his people.[46]  Therefore, Junga Bahadur Rana during the rise of the Rana regime, was a prudent and virtuous Machiavellian prince but was not so after he gained such power. Machiavelli suggested that a prudent prince should be cautious in believing in his subjects, however, he should also not take everyone to be his enemy.[47] Therefore, the regime’s intent not to provide the populace with education, as a preventive measure,[48] was against Machiavelli’s suggestion to a prince. While strategies and conspiracies were well used during the rise of the regime, “vice” of the regime led to its inevitable downfall. Therefore, while compliance with Machiavelli’s suggestions led to victory of Junga Bahadur over the Shahs, the regime’s latter non-compliance with virtues of a Machiavellian leader led to its eventual downfall.

* The author is a third year B.A./LL.B. (Hons.) student at Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Punjab, India.


[1] Mark Jurdjevic, ‘Virtue, Fortune, and Blame in Machiavelli’s Life and The Prince’ (2014) 81(1) Social Research, Machiavelli’s The Prince 500 Years Later < https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/26549600 > accessed 15 January 2021

[2] ‘Niccolo Machiavelli’ (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 13 September, 2005) < https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/machiavelli/#Biog > accessed 14 January 2021; Rasoul Namazi, ‘The Question of Esoteric Writing in Machiavelli’s Work’ (2017) 40 (2)  Renaissance and Reformation < https://www.jstor.org/stable/26398554 > accessed 15 January 2021

[3] Gregory Murry, ‘The Best Possible Use of Christianity: The Rhetorical Stance of Machiavelli’s Christian Passages’ (2015) 36 (2) History of Political Thought < https://www.jstor.org/stable/26228599 > accessed 15 January 2021

[4] Michael Jackson and Damian Grace, ‘Machiavelli’s Shadows in Management, Social Psychology and Primatology’ (2015) 62 (142) A Journal of Social and Political Theory < https://www.jstor.org/stable/24719952 > accessed 13 January 2021

[5] ibid.

[6] ‘Niccolo Machiavelli’ (n 2).

[7] Catherine H. Zuckert, ‘Machiavelli’s “Prince” ­– Five Hundred Years Later’ (2013) 75 (4) The Review of Politics < https://www.jstor.org/stable/43670903 > accessed 13 January 2021

[8] Mark Jurdjevic, ‘Virtue, Fortune, and Blame in Machiavelli’s Life and The Prince’ (n 1).

[9] Nikola Regent, ‘Machiavelli: Empire, “Virtue” and the Final Downfall’ (2011) 32 (5) History of Political Thought < https://www.jstor.org/stable/26225726 > accessed 13 January 2021; Giovanni Giorgini, ‘The Place of the Tyrant in Machiavelli’s Political Thought and the Literary Genre of the Prince’ (2008) 29 (2) History of Political Thought < https://www.jstor.org/stable/26224004 > accessed 14 January 2021

[10] Kunda Dixit, ‘Inside Story of Nepal’s Rana Dynasty’ Nepali Times (Kathmandu, 5 September 2020) < https://www.nepalitimes.com/here-now/inside-story-of-nepals-rana-dynasty/ > accessed 9 January 2021

[11] Michael Jackson and Damian Grace, ‘Machiavelli’s Shadows in Management, Social Psychology and Primatology’ (n 4).

[12] Rasoul Namazi, ‘The Question of Esoteric Writing in Machiavelli’s Work’ (n 2).

[13] Euguence Garver, ‘After “Virtue”: Rhetoric, Prudence and Moral Pluralism in Machiavelli’ (1996) 17 (2) History of Political Thought < https://www.jstor.org/stable/26217064> accessed 13 January 2021

[14] Kunda Dixit, ‘Inside Story of Nepal’s Rana Dynasty’ (n 10).

[15] Euguence Garver, ‘After “Virtue”: Rhetoric, Prudence and Moral Pluralism in Machiavelli’ (n 13).

[16] ibid.

[17]‘Mandragola’<http://galileo.rice.edu/lib/student_work/florence96/catcher/mandragola.html#:~:text=Written%20in%201518%2C%20Mandragola%20is,wishes%20to%20become%20her%20lover> accessed 14 January 2020

[18] Gregory Murry, ‘The Best Possible Use of Christianity: The Rhetorical Stance of Machiavelli’s Christian Passages’ (n 3).

[19] Chandra Prakash Singh, ‘Rise and Growth of Anti-Rana Movement in Nepal’ (2004) 65 Proceedings of the Indian History Congress < https://www.jstor.org/stable/44144808 > accessed 9 January 2021

[20] Madhav Raj Pandey, ‘How Jang Bahadur Established Rana Rule in Nepal’

[21] Kunda Dixit, ‘Inside Story of Nepal’s Rana Dynasty’ (n 10).

[22] James B. Atkinson (trs), Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince (The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc 2008) 99

[23] James Martel, ‘Machiavelli’s Public Conspiracies’ (2009) 2 (1) Media Tropes eJournal 60

[24] Rasoul Namazi, ‘The Question of Esoteric Writing in Machiavelli’s Work’ (n 2).

[25] John P. McCormick, ‘The Enduring Ambiguity of Machiavellian Virtue’ (2014) 81 (1) Social Research, Machiavelli’s The Prince 500 Years Later < https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/26549605 > accessed 13 January 2021

[26] Stephen H. Wirls and Steven H. Wirls, ‘Machiavelli ad Neustadat on Virtue and the Civil Prince’ (1994) 24 (3) Presidential Studies Quarterly < https://www.jstor.org/stable/27551278 > accessed 13 January 2021

[27] Michelle T. Clarke, ‘The Virtues of Republican Citizenship in Machiavelli Discourses on Livy’ (2013) 75 (2) The Journal of Politics < https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1017/s0022381613000030 > accessed 13 January 2021;  Gregory Murry, ‘The Best Possible Use of Christianity: The Rhetorical Stance of Machiavelli’s Christian Passages’ (n 3).

[28] John P. McCormick, ‘Machiavelli’s Inglorious Tyrants: Agathocles, Scipio and Unmerited Glory’ (2015) 36 (1) History of Political Thought < https://www.jstor.org/stable/26226962 > accessed 12 January 2021; John P. McCormick, ‘The Enduring Ambiguity of Machiavellian Virtue’ (2014) 81(1) Social Research, Machiavelli’s The Prince 500 Years Later < https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/26549605 > accessed 12 January 2021

[29] Gregory Murry, ‘The Best Possible Use of Christianity: The Rhetorical Stance of Machiavelli’s Christian Passages’ (n 3).

[30] Catherine Zuckert, ‘Machiavelli and the End of Nobility in Politics’ (2014) 81 (1) Social Research, Machiavelli’s The Prince 500 Years Later < http://www.jstor.com/stable/26549603 > accessed 12 January 2021

[31] Mark Jurdjevic, ‘Virtue, Fortune, and Blame in Machiavelli’s Life and The Prince’ (n 1).

[32] ibid.

[33] Nathan Tracov, ‘Belief and Opinion in Machiavelli’s “Prince”’ (2013) 75 (4) The Review of Politics < https://www.jstor.org/stable/43670908 > accessed 14 January 2021

[34] John P. McCormick, ‘The Enduring Ambiguity of Machiavellian Virtue’ (n 28).

[35] Madhav Raj Pandey, ‘How Jang Bahadur Established Rana Rule in Nepal’

[36] Ryan Balot and Stephen Trochimchuk, ‘The Many and the Few: On Machiavelli’s “Democratic Moment”’ (2012) 74 (4) The Review of Politics < https://www.jstor.org/stable/23355686 > accessed 12 January 2021

[37] Nathan Tracov, ‘Belief and Opinion in Machiavelli’s “Prince”’ (n 33).

[38] Bernard Weinraub, ‘World’s Only Hindu King is Crowned in Nepal Ritual’ The New York Times (New York, 24 February 1975) < https://www.nytimes.com/1975/02/24/archives/worlds-only-hindu-king-is-crowned-in-nepal-ritual-worlds-only-hindu.html > accessed 9 January 2021

[39] Catherine Zuckert, ‘Machiavelli and the End of Nobility in Politics’ (n 30).

[40] ibid.

[41] ibid.

[42] Phil Harris, ‘Machiavelli and the Global Compass: Ends and Means in Ethics and Leadership’ (2010) 93 (1) Journal of Business Ethics < https://www.jstor.org/stable/27919158 > accessed January 12 2021

[43] Louise Brown, ‘The Ranas and the Raj’ Historia (Kathmandu, 14 March 2017)  <http://www.historiamag.com/ranas-and-raj/ > accessed January 9, 2021

[44] Catherine Zuckert, ‘Machiavelli and the End of Nobility in Politics’ (n 30).

[45] Gray Remer, ‘Rhetoric as a Balancing of Ends: Cicero and Machiavelli’ (2009) 42 (1) Philosophy & Rhetoric < https://www.jstor.org/stable/25655336 > accessed 11January 2021; Sarah Clifford and Scott N. Romaniuk, ‘Machiavelli as a Misogynist: The Masculinization of Fortuna and Virtue’ (E-International Relation, 27 November, 2019)  < https://www.e-ir.info/2019/11/27/machiavelli-as-misogynist-the-masculinization-of-fortuna-and-virtu/ > accessed 11 January 2021

[46] Catherine Zuckert, ‘Machiavelli and the End of Nobility in Politics’ (n 30).

[47] Nathan Tracov, ‘Belief and Opinion in Machiavelli’s “Prince”’ (n 33).

[48] Gopi Nath Sharma, ‘The Impact of Education During the Rana Period in Nepal’ (1990) 10 (2) Himalaya < https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/46723119.pdf > accessed 9 January 2021

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