When Surya Bahadur Thapa became prime minister a month ago, most people heaved a sigh of relief. Here was a wily manipulator who could use the executive powers bestowed on him by the king to lead the charge, and yank the politics out of the quagmire. It's looking more and more like the old horse is running out of steam.
To be sure, the odds are stacked against Thapa: there is the whole question of his legitimacy, the NC-UML alliance sees him as a pretender, the Maoists barely trust him. And then there is the daily list of damage control chores: street protests, school strikes, transport strikes, oil tanker stoppages.
"Nothing moves, things are at a complete standstill, there is no government," says a senior bureaucrat who has seen governments come and go, but nothing like what prevails today.
Thapa's check list was to first try and get the political parties on board by promising them a reinstatement of parliament, then crafting a multi-partisan approach to the Maoist talks, and once they agreed, announce a date for elections. He is stuck at Step One. His obstacles are many, but the most nagging is also nearest: the party president Pashupati Rana's faction feels left out.
But things are changing. The UML is torn by dissension from the KP Oli camp, which is now in open mutiny. Oliji is stirring things up and now wants a party convention, barely six months after the last one. It is hard to see where this is headed other than an open split because Madhab Kumar Nepal still commands the internal party votes. But MKN is being blamed by some in his party for his failure to achieve premiership after getting so close.
By washing its linen in public, the UML has frayed the five party alliance. The immediate effect is seen in the strong lobby within the Congress now wanting to go it alone. In the family, Shailaja Acharya doesn't seem to agree with anything her uncle GP Koirala does, and says so publicly every chance she gets. Girijababu, for his part, doesn't seem to care what anyone, least of all his own family says, and is launching ever-bolder broadsides against the king.
All this should make Surya Bahadur Thapa's job easy. But it doesn't. After the abuse they have hurled at the king and his prime minister, there is no way the parties can now join the government. The only way is to lure defectors in. But there are doubts if such a government can be sustainable in the longterm. "Everyone is just sitting it out," explained one party insider. "This is a dangerous situation. Because no one is in charge, anyone can be in charge." Hence the paranoia about outside interference on the one hand, and groups like student unions who are exploiting the uncertainty to force closures on the other.
And now, with the prime minister busy with his daughter's wedding and the whole country gearing up for marathon celebrations of King Gyanendra's birthday next week, no one is expecting a dramatic clearing of the political air any time soon.