By Sanjeev Miglani and Gopal Sharma
KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Just a few years ago, Nepal's royal family looked consigned to the history books.
A palace massacre by an unhinged crown prince in 2001, in which the king and eight members of his family were killed, was followed seven years later by the abolition of the monarchy by a Maoist-dominated special legislative assembly.
But the Himalayan nation's political and economic fortunes have dipped alarmingly since then, opening a window of opportunity for die-hard supporters of the monarchy to stage a comeback.
The Rastriya Prajantantra Party Nepal, a royalist group led by Kamal Bahadur Thapa, who was interior minister at the height of anti-monarchy protests, has found a way back into the political fray with a strident campaign to once again make Nepal the world's only Hindu state.
"Our main agenda is a Hindu state with a constitutional monarchy," Thapa told Reuters. "The monarchy should be the last custodian of the country during the times of crisis."
"We want Nepal to be a Hindu nation where all religions will co-exist, all religions will be free and equal. There will be no discrimination on the basis of religious beliefs," said the former national soccer player, immaculately dressed in skin-tight trousers, a knee-length shirt and a traditional boat-shaped Nepali cap.
India, which lies to landlocked Nepal's south, east and west, also has a Hindu majority but is secular. China is on the north giving fragmented and impoverished Nepal a key strategic position between Asia's two giants.
The royalists' new-found clout could further complicate the struggle to build a stable democracy in a country that is riven by the competing agendas of Maoists, centrist groups and regional parties. Nepal has not had a constitution or a stable government since the overthrow of the monarchy.
More than 81 percent of Nepal's 27 million people are Hindus. For more than two centuries Nepal was ruled by Hindu monarchs of the Shah dynasty, and the kings themselves were revered as incarnations of the god Vishnu.
In 1990, King Birendra began dismantling his absolute power after pro-democracy protests, but the monarchy fell apart when his son Dipendra killed his parents, siblings and other royals in a drug-fuelled rage.
Birendra's brother Gyanendra, who was not in the palace at the time of the massacre, was forced out by a popular uprising some years later. As Maoist rebel fighters laid down their arms to join the political mainstream, Nepal was declared a secular republic.
Now, the last royals have faded from public view, except for temple appearances by Gyanendra. He lives in a bungalow not far from the royal palace in central Kathmandu, which has been converted into a museum.
His unpopular son and a one-time successor, Paras - best know for his glamorous lifestyle and flaming temper - has not been seen for years and is thought to be living in Thailand.
"It's the monarchy that has kept this country united, generations of them," said Keshar Bahadur Bista, a former education minister and number 2 in the royalist party.
"We have never been occupied, we are proud of it. Even a big country like India has been repeatedly occupied. But now the Maoists are trying to divide us in the name of race, religion."
Gyanendra has not commented on the royalist party or the campaign to bring back the monarchy.
The royalist party emerged as the fourth-largest behind the three main political formations in elections held last month to a 601-member assembly that will draft a charter to guide Nepal's future after a failed attempt by a previous assembly.
It won 6 percent of the popular vote, which gives 24 seats in the constituent assembly, up from one percent in the previous election. The emergence of the royalists as a right-of-centre force to be reckoned with puts them on a collision course with the Maoists.
The Maoists call the royalist party's win temporary.
"The monarchy has ended in Nepal for ever. It cannot come back," said Devendra Paudel, a senior Maoist leader.
"The votes won by them showed people's dissatisfaction with other parties," he said, referring to the royalists. "They voted for religious reasons and not for the monarchy. This support for the royalists will not last long."
For the Maoists, the state had no business to be in religion and they believed that the faster it stepped out, the better Nepal's prospects as a modern republic. For the royalists, a Hindu state is central to Nepal's national identity.
The constitutional monarchy and Hinduism is central to the party.
In October, just before the start of the election campaign, senior members of the party gathered for special prayers in an incensed-filled temple in Gorkha, home to the country's celebrated Gurkha warriors, pledging to re-establish a Hindu state.
To the chanting of Vedic hymns and with red vermillion smeared on their foreheads, an important symbol of Hinduism, they set off from the temple on an 11-day journey, drawing inspiration from the first king's struggle to unite a fractious nation that had begun from there 250 years earlier.
Some carried the double-triangle red national flag as well as the blue, yellow and red party flag with a cow, considered holy by Hindus, in the centre. Others held a portrait of King Prithvi Narayan Shah, the first monarch who unified modern-day Nepal.
Ramesh Nath Pandey, a former foreign minister in the king's cabinet, said overturning Nepal's Hindu identity was ill-conceived and a decision taken in the heady moments of the collapse of the monarchy.
"There was no discussion. Just something done in the middle of the night, 600 people thumped on their desks and cleared it. It smacked of hooliganism."
"We cannot go back to exactly what it was. But our problem is we don't have a leadership, a custodian of national interest in the way the monarchy was, the last line," Pandey said.
(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)