Foused by rain and doubt, five political parties went ahead with their demos on Thursday, defying a government ban on assembly and unprecedented security bandobast at Ratna Park.
Among those arrested were Sushil Koirala of the Congress and Bharat Mohan Adhikari of the UML. Parties say 1,500 of their activsts were detained, while police put the figure at 400 and said some were immediately released. Attempts to hold a sit-in at Ratna Park will resume Friday.
Political leaders had softened their rhetoric ever since three Kathmandu-based ambassadors actively lobbied to head off a party-palace confrontation at a time when the Maoists are gearing up for violent protests in Kathmandu next week. But it looks like the parties had to go ahead with a previously-scheduled program for face-saving reasons, and also because many cadre had already arrived in Kathmandu.
Rifts had also appeared within the five-party alliance, with the smaller parties accusing the two biggies of chickening out. Veteran leftie of the Nepal Workers and Peasants' Party Narayan Man Bijukchhe blames ambassadors from the United States, Europe and India for intimidating the UML and Congress. "It's quite clear who's calling the shots here," Bijukchhe told us on Thursday.
In King Gyanendra's absence, the high-profile activities of the foreign ambassadors have not gone unnoticed by opinion-makers, some even say that Nepal almost appeared to be a "protectorate" of the West and India. US Ambassador Michael Malinowsky admitted in an interview to the BBC Nepali Service on 31 August that the "US, UK and India are working closely to help restore peace in Nepal."
The party leadership denies it is dancing to the diplomatic tune, and has tried to put on a brave face. "We know the government was apprehensive that our protests would get wide public support," Congress spokesman Arjun Narsingh KC told us. "But we also don't want the Maoists to take advantage of our program."
To be sure, the diplomats have not just been arm-twisting the parties, they seem to be working on the palace too. And the message that has gone to the party bosses is that the king is ready to meet them half-way sometime after his return from London on 7 September.
The parties appear to be willing to abandon their demands for reinstatement of parliament in return for an all-party government with a prime minister of their choice. Names of second-rung candidates from both parties, Chakra Bastola from the Congress and Ram Chandra Poudel, and Madhab Nepal from the UML are being floated.
The government has said it has intelligence that the Maoists plan to infiltrate the parties' protests through the weekend, but a close aide to prime minister Surya Bahadur Thapa said this wasn't a ploy to get the parties to call off their agitation. He felt, however, that the parties needed an honourable exit so their workers would not accuse them of selling out.