Getting elected prime minister by his parliamentary party was the easy part for Sher Bahadur Deuba. Now comes the hard part.
It was an indication of just how difficult even simple things could be that it took him four days to cobble together a 13-member cabinet. He had to satisfy dissatisfied dissidents, appease recent defectors, oblige those who had supported him in Pokhara-all the while trying to keep the party united and get a relatively honest, efficient and accountable team. It was a thankless and near-impossible task.
Deuba wasn't taking any chances even with the stars. Astrologers had told him Monday and Tuesday were inauspicious, so he decided to wait until Thursday to get on with the job. Let's hope the wait was worth it. So far, the signs are good. Deuba immediately activated his links with the underground Maoists and announced what almost appeared like a joint suspension of offensives. For the first time in the six-year war, state-run radio and television broadcast a statement by Maoist Chairman Prachanda. He "requested" his militia to stop all "pre-planned armed attacks and go into active defence" mode. The attack Sunday night in Bajura could have been previously ordered, and the Prachanda statement over Radio Nepal seems to have been aimed at getting the message quickly to his cells to thwart further raids.
The ceasefire announcement was greeted with cautious optimism by the long-suffering Nepali public, war-weary police and civilians caught in the crossfire. With the immediate problem postponed, Deuba has bought some time to address other pressing issues. But no one will envy his long to-do list:
Make the truce hold while considering Prachanda's demands of confidence building measures: making public the whereabouts of missing rebels, exchanging prisoners and annulling the previous government's moves to fight the insurgency, including the paramilitary and the hearts-and-minds ISDP.
Deliver on promises left unfulfilled by his predecessor: maintain law and order, improve governance and control corruption.
Deal with an impatient parliamentary opposition led by the UML as things hot up ahead of local elections next year.
Boost investor confidence, business and tourism. All three are related to political stability and resolving the insurgency.
These would be formidable challenges at the best of times, and Deuba can expect adversity and pitfalls on all four items on his list. The Maoist stance on a conference of all political forces to discuss replacing the constitution seems as non-negotiable as the preamble to the present constitution is about parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy.
Miles to go
How is such a fundamental chasm going to be bridged, and does Deuba need a consensus from all parliamentary parties on what he is going to talk about?
Prachanda wants the ISDP, the paramilitary Armed Police Force and the Public Security Regulations scrapped before any talks. It is hard to imagine Deuba letting go of these, because that will defang the government. The new prime minister also has to clear up the issue of army deployment in Rolpa and elsewhere. Koirala's resignation, according to senior Nepali Congress sources, came immediately after a disagreement with King Gyanendra last Wednesday over the Rolpa deployment. Koirala felt the army was not moving in to rescue captured policemen despite a clear objective and mandate from the National Security Council. The army's chain of command is going to be a touchy issue. How will Deuba deal with the king?
Streamlining governance and curbing corruption, highly desirable though these issues may be, will be difficult with some of the powerful, tainted and ambitious figures in Deuba's cabinet lineup. We have seen before that long-term, non-partisan national interest is pretty low down on their list of priorities. And behind the curtains there is a vindictive Koirala licking his wounds, and waiting to give Deuba a taste of his own medicine. Can Deuba rein in his cabinet?
The UML is feeling the squeeze from the Maoists and wants dialogue with the rebels to be all-party and not government-Maoists only. It is pleased it is facing local elections next year with Deuba at the helm and not the organisationally stronger Koirala. Still, they will be waiting to pounce on any issue like the recent hike in electricity tariffs. What will the UML's next Lauda be?
Nepal has seen no major foreign direct investment in the past five years and business confidence has sunk to an all-time low. The royal massacre has already hit the tourism industry and news-bites on the insurgency will continue to scare away tourists. Nothing will work without peace, which Deuba has recognised is the number one priority. But can he deliver, and how soon?
"I don't think this is the time to be totally hopeful, says Dr Pitamber Sharma, a leftist analyst. "There have been good moves by both Deuba and Prachanda, but we don't know what they have up their sleeve." For now, both sides need breathing space. The Maoists need to consolidate their position and rethink their strategy after the tactical confusion about how to cash in on the royal massacre. Deuba needs time to settle down, but he won't get much.
The Maoists see the 1 June royal massacre as a historical opportunity to move towards setting up a "people's republic". Political parties that accept the present constitution oppose this. The Maoists will try to bank on the poor public image of the king's son Paras, likely to be the next monarch, to sell their idea to the masses. They will also try to demoralise the army and build on rifts between Singha Durbar and Narayanhiti over the army.
"Legally there is no doubt that government can use the army whenever it considers it necessary, but based on the experience of his predecessor, Deuba has an uphill task ahead, taking the army and the king into confidence," says Ganesh Raj Sharma, a constitutional lawyer and political analyst. Unlike his predecessor, who had a full-time defence minister to oversee the ISDP implementation and have one-more vote in the National Security Council, Deuba has kept the crucial defence ministry and seven others (including foreign) with himself.
The most immediate question is what to do with the army already deployed in Nuwagaon in Rolpa. The military cannot back out until there is a face-saving release of the remaining policemen taken from Holeri. Maoist central committee member Rabindra Shrestha in a Jana Aadesh article warns the army to keep out. He says the Maoist demand is for Deuba to immediately cancel the army's deployment under the ISDP in 11 districts, especially its "base areas".
In a statement soon after being elected on Monday, Deuba recognised that the economy and tourism wouldn't stand a chance without first resolving the Maoist threat. Luckily for him, Nepal's macro-economic indicators are sound. Last year's healthy monsoon and foreign remittance kept the annual growth rate at a decent six percent. But foreign investments have dried up, and income from exports like garments, pashmina and carpets are down. And the big dollar earner, tourism, has suffered a serious setback.
"There is still hope, all we need for a rebound is peace and consistent efforts at developing tourist infrastructure," says Pradeep Raj Pandey of the Nepal Tourism Board. "If we have that, I'm confident tourism can take care of itself."