When Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba took office four months ago, he told everyone he had one goal and one goal only: to make peace with the Maoists.
And sure enough, he struck a truce with the rebels and went about systematically trying to lure them out in the open.
Deuba was, and is still, gambling on a negotiated settlement so that he can bask in the political glory of being a peacemaker. For a while, it looked like he had a strong hand, but lately he has started frittering it all away. To shore up support within his party, Deuba doled out ministerial portfolios to just about everyone. The cronies were happy, but the 41-member cabinet was an unpopular move.
It was the combined support of Koirala-bashers in the Left and the Right that helped Deuba oust Girija in July. Now that the honeymoon is over, the main left UML is getting impatient. It brought together an everyone-except-Congress meeting on Tuesday, and the message was: "We can't expect much from Deuba anymore on talks with the Maoists, we'll forge a unity of all non-Congress forces."
Within the Congress, Koirala is now well-rested and restless. He is going around the country exhorting villagers to rise up against the Maoists, who are now into kidnapping UML cadre in what appears to be a warm-up tussle in the run-up to next year's local polls.
Deuba must know that political restlessness is contagious. And he knows he needs to get Round Three off and running as soon as possible. The trouble is, the talks are stalled because the Maoist leadership can't decide what to ask for, and are having trouble reconstituting their negotiating team.
"The talks will resume early next week or immediately after Tihar," a Deuba aide told us. "The prime minister is fully aware of the stakes. He knows there are rumblings within the party."
The other Congress septuagenarian, Krishna Prasad Bhatarai, is miffed that his prot?g? is not consulting him anymore. In fact, that seems to be the gripe even within the cabinet: the powerful home minister Khum Bahadur Khadga is publicly saying the prime minister is keeping him out of the loop on the Maoist negotiations. Koirala, for his part, accuses Deuba of giving in too much to the Maoists, and says the peace process should be stopped until the Maoists disarm. They all know Deuba is gambling, and don't want him to take all the credit if he wins peace.
Deuba now wants to announce local elections immediately after Tihar to stave off moves to unseat him. Koirala controls the party's organisation and its vote banks, he would like to use elections to get Deuba out. Chakra Bastola is another Congress MP who is disillusioned with Deuba. "The government is wasting time," he told us. "It has nothing to show, it's just bragging about the Maoists not having killed policemen after the peace process began."
The big question now is whether the Maoists can be enticed to take part in next year's local election. The ideal solution for Deuba would be to get them to contest openly: that way he gets the kudos, and puts the UML and Maoists head-to-head. But the likelihood of a peace agreement in time to allow Maoists to prepare for the polls is slim. And holding elections without the Maoists could give the rebels a reason to head back to the jungles.
On the talks itself, there is a feeling that they have reached a dead-end. A member of the government negotiation panel told us: "We know what they want, they know we can't give it to them. We could just go on chatting away forever about things that don't matter."
Deuba's aide Prakash Sharan Mahat disagrees. "The talks are getting to the core issues. We have reached the compromise stage," he told us. But both the Maoists and Deuba need to deal with hardliners within their own fold who are getting impatient with the talks dragging on. Both are sabre rattling: the Maoists with their abductions and the Congress will its tough talk.
The Maoists political demands are setting up an interim government, rewriting the constitution and declaring a republic. The government says it won't give an inch on either the constitution or the republic. The only option is to convince the Maoists to join an interim government, but this is opposed by Koirala and the hardliners.
For Deuba, the moment of truth will come after Tihar when he has to either show that the talks are progressing, or face Koirala, the UML and the Maoists. In that order.