The Maoists wanted to know the whereabouts of their comrade, Dinesh Sharma, as a precondition to talks. Dinesh was released. There was a bit of a drama that accompanied his freedom, but the Comrade is back underground and, for all intents and purposes, free. So what is the problem, why are the Maoists sulking, why is Padma Ratna Tuladhar throwing tantrums?
For some murky and seemingly intractable reason, serious talks (even informal) between the Maoists and the government are unlikely to resume in a hurry. Both sides and their mediator will need to lick their wounds and mend egos bruised by the antics of Comrade Sharma who defected and then undefected himself within a two-hour period on 4 November.
After the Dunai and Bhorletar massacres of policemen in September, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala stuck his neck out to get the palace and army brass to agree to partially deploy soldiers in insurgency-affected districts. It could have been the distinct possibility of having to fight the army that made the Maoist leadership realise the importance of peace talks. The government was also under pressure from public opinion to explore peaceful means to end the five-year-old conflict.
And that is the paradox: both sides were under pressure to talk, but they didn't gain anything by talking. Enter: Padma Ratna Tuladhar, Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Ram Chandra Poudel, and the Maoist Kathmandu commander, Rabindra Shrestha. Date: 27 October. After the tete-e-tete, there were smiles all around. Poudel thought it went well, Padma Ratna was happy, and we have his word that Rabindra Shrestha was also enthusiastic.
The feeling everyone had was that all this sounded too good to be true: the Maoists put forward such easy pre-conditions to stop shooting and start talking. All they wanted was that the whereabouts of Dinesh Sharma be made public (not even his release) along with several others of their comrades being held by the government. The implication of this demand was clear: the government would be forced to release them the moment it accepted that they were under its custody. The second pre-condition was even simpler: the next round of official talks had to be with a designated government representative. This was a clever ploy to fish in the troubled waters of chronic infighting in the Nepali Congress, and the sting was an ultimatum to meet the demands by 3 in the afternoon of 3 November, or else.
On D-Day ('D' for drama here) it was a cloak-and-dagger show right from the word go. Communication Minister Jai Prakash Gupta personally called leading journalists and assembled them in his office at Singha Durbar. From there, they were herded into a van and taken to the International Convention Centre. A few minutes before the three o'clock deadline, the government popped young Dinesh out of the hat along with this brother-in-law and comrade-in-arms, Dinanath Gautam.
With a rather nervous demeanour, Dinesh dutifully denounced the violent ways of Maoism. He vowed to renounce arms, and adopt peaceful means in mobilising the masses for Marxist politics. Those present there said that although Dinesh had shifty eyes, there was not a hint of coercion. No, I wasn't tortured, he said.The government appeared to have scored a propaganda coup.
But, as we all know by now, within an hour and a half Dinesh sent a fax message retracting every statement he had just made and declared that he had made them under duress. Even for the intrigue-laden politics of Kathmandu, this was dramatic stuff. In one fell swoop, Dinesh had plastered eggs on the faces of Jai Prakash Gupta, Deputy Prime Minister Poudel, mediator Padma Ratna and even his boss, Prachanda.
Rabindra Shrestha was so livid he wrote an op-ed article the very next day in Kantipur charging the government with double-dealing, threatening Koirala with dire consequences. Prachanda followed it up with another fax declaring that the chances of talks were "nearly over". Nearly over also means almost open: and presum-ably he still hopes that the government will pick the ball. The lesson from the farce is this: the Maoists and the government are not serious about talks. It was a PR exercise to assuage war-weary Nepalis.
In a way, Dinesh Sharma's left-right acrobatics may turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Now that the government and the Maoists have succeeded in calling each other's bluff, they may finally realise that such diversionary tactics can backfire. Another lesson: future talks will have to be in secret so that posturing will not derail it. But first, the government and the Maoists must be made to feel the public pressure for peace once again.