"I am a happy man," said Prime Minister Surya Bahadur Thapa, deplaning last Tuesday after his visit to Bhutan, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in preparation for the upcoming SAARC summit in Islamabad.
And well he might be, having been saved by the regional association when national politics was demanding his departure from the top job at Singha Durbar.
Thapa inherited the chairmanship of SAARC from Sher Bahadur Deuba, who had ruled the roost when the summit happened last in Kathmandu in January 2002. He left for his subcontinental whirlwind just as his party, RPP, exploded with demands for him to step down and make way for an all-party government. Meanwhile, the other political parties were gearing up for renewed protests against the king and his government. Madhab Kumar Nepal's Lucknow dash to meet Messrs Prachanda and Baburam seemed also to have the capacity to show Thapa the door.
And ironically, the most significant outcome of Thapa's confab with Atal Behari Vajpayee on 24 November was South Block's suggestion via press release that the king and the parties consider sorting out their differences so as better to tackle the insurgents at the door.
For all these pressures, Thapa said he was happy when he came down the ramp at Tribhuban International Airport. Does the prime minister know something the rest of the polity does not, which may explain his hilarity?
It could be the inability of the political parties to generate momentum amongst themselves or among the public for their agitation against 'pratigaman', more directed against Narayanhiti than Singha Durbar. A meeting to consider the future course of the agitation could not happen Thursday. Actually, the parties were supposed to finalise the 10th round of their agitation two months ago.
"The parties are quite undecided," concedes senior and maverick Congressman Narhari Acharya. "We have only been reacting. We do not have any concrete plan to move ahead united."
The parties remain befuddled because the Maoists are still the larger enemy and a decisive showdown with the king may simply benefit the rebels. They do not like the army's increasing presence in national affairs but they fear the Maoists' unchecked spread across the hills and plains even less.
For thus having shown considerable flexibility, the parties would certainly like to see some reciprocity from the palace. But King Gyanendra has kept his cards close to his chest. No one knows whether his continuing aloofness from the political parties is a calculated move or whether he, too, is hemmed in by having granted executive powers when he appointed Surya Bahadur prime minister, a facility apparently not available to his predecesor Lokendra Bahadur Chand.
Some top politicos even believed that the RPP's move, led by president Pashupati SJB Rana, would have helped bridge the gap between the parties and the monarch. After all, the demand of the RPP was an all-party government, which is what the UML and the Congress have been demanding of the king.
But nothing happened. The palace remained inscrutable, while Thapa thumbed his nose at his party president and added an uncouth remark (about Pashupati's lineage) to boot. And then he went on his SAARC jaunt.
So, almost appearing to be enjoying himself, Thapa seems to believe he is secure and that the Sword of Damocles that others see dangling is just not there.
Perhaps feeling equally out of the loop with the army, king and Thapa arrayed on one side, the Maoists have begun sending feelers out to the political parties. Rebel ideologue Baburam Bhattarai has spoken of a strategy to forge an alliance with the parties to oppose "the regression". He admitted the meeting with UML's Nepal had the same agenda.
The choice between reconciliation with the king or an alliance with the rebels may be no choice at all. But they are reduced to waiting at the gate of the palace for the next royal move.
And so, as usual, all eyes are on Narayanhiti. A source close to the palace conceded, speaking to us, "Even His Majesty is under increasing pressure from donors and foreign powers to take initiative for an all-party government."
But if the smile remains on Thapa's face in the days to come, it would be fair to say that even the palace has been checkmated by the wily man from Muga*. For the moment that is.
* Muga, village in Dhankuta District overlooking the Arun river, from where the prime minister hails.