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First the good news. The government appeared to show relatively greater interest in kicking off talks this week with madhesi groups who responded by pushing the \'decisive' phase of their movement by a fortnight. This gave all sides some more time to evolve creative political responses.

Bad news: this isn't a breakthrough. The players are not looking for a solution, but are safeguarding immediate interests. And the two do not necessarily converge beyond a point.

The seven parties still don't have a plan and responses are characterised by incoherence. NC leaders are in a tussle to carve out space. Sushil Koirala said that if he only knew how to get in touch with Goit and Jwala Singh, he would talk.

Is that a joke? The president of the country's largest party can't get hold of two Indian mobile numbers? Maybe he should ask his madhesi activists, many of whom are also with armed groups.

Ram Chandra Poudel suddenly wants to act as peacemaker because he saw the ground slipping beneath his feet with Sujata Koirala establishing separate contact with some madhesi groups through an aide. Encouraged by daddy, Sujata hopes to be credited with a political victory if the armed groups come just for one round of talks.

It is not going to be that simple, though. The credentials of the intermediary are dubious. And no one trusts Sujata after she ruined Upendra Yadav by encouraging him to go for a second phase of the movement so she could get at arch-foe, Home Minister Krishna Prasad Sitaula.

Then there are differences within the armed groups, particularly in Jwala Singh's outfit. One section is arguing for talks as a way to win legitimacy, especially at a time when local authorities in Bihar are stepping up the pressure. Jwala himself is understood to be saying that this is the time for organisation-building and agitation. He feels that a state which can't even raise petroleum prices is hollow and weak, and can be forced to bend.

Madhesi moderate groups decided on a more gradual movement out of both a sense of weakness and the need to warm up. They know they are now getting into dangerous territory. Madhesi groups do not want chaos, all they are looking for is a respectable face-saver which allows them to claim victory and helps secure electoral positions. Once a movement begins, all it will take is the killing of one person in police firing to make things emotive and radicalise demands.

Anyone who talks will be seen as having sold out. The government's failure to implement the Upendra Yadav deal scares madhesi groups about going into negotiations. This is why Mahant Thakur asked for a clarification on the government's attitude regarding his demands as the first step to creating an environment for talks. Madhesi politicians do not see any point in talking to Poudel, whose ability to deliver has only diminished with Sujata's ascendance.

Finally, the reason Poudel-Thakur talks might not happen is because no madhesi group will dare to come alone to the talks table. Successful negotiations have to be based on consultations with all three players.

India has been playing an important behind the scenes role. It told the government to act soon, and not expect Delhi to sort out the mess if things get dirty. Lainchaur also told Mahant Thakur to override objections within his party, especially from Hridayesh Tripathi, to ally with other madhesi groups. At the same time, it is leaning on madhesis not to escalate demands. Delhi still wants polls, but also wants to maintain and increase its influence across the madhesi political spectrum.

Irreconcilable as the two aims may seem, it also gives reason to believe that India will use its influence to push for a compromise.

All this adds up to a complex situation, which requires sensitivity from Kathmandu's political establishment and civil society. Some editorials in the capital have called for deployment of the army to quell tarai troubles. Do that, and madhesi extremists will be thrilled. After that, not even Pashupatinath can save this country from the rise of an armed separatist movement.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)