The Maoists are taking a big gamble with their Kathmandu Valley 'blockade'. They are testing the psychology of the capital's citizens, the reaction of the security forces and also the response of the international community.
They have deliberately left the blockade call vague so that if in the first few days there are indications that it is not working, they can say they never called for it or say they withdrew it keeping the welfare of the masses in mind.
But at a strategic level, this is a rebel effort to assert their presence in the central region after the decimation of their leadership here in the past six months. The leader of their 'ring area', Hit Bahadur Tamang, was among the 11 captured in Patna in May. Now that most political parties have accepted the Maoists' constituent assembly demand, this could be the leadership's strategy to pressure the palace and the army to accept that precondition for talks.
Whether this strategy will work on not will depend on the panic level of Kathmandu's pampered residents, especially if it drags on for more than three weeks. It will also depend on the ability of the security forces to keep the three main highway passes into the Valley open and the efficacy of the army's intelligence.
Officially, the blockade has been called by the Maoists' 'people's government' for Nuwakot, Rasuwa and Sindhupalchok in response to the army's killing of Bharat Dhungana, another ring area leader. But Rajman Pakhrin of the Maoists' 'district people's government' says the blockade has the blessings of his party's central leadership. "Our main intention is to provoke the people of the capital to launch an urban uprising," he adds.
Military analysts, however, think that the Maoists are focusing their battle-hardened guerrillas and their attention on Kathmandu because this is where they are the weakest. The dynamic of their armed struggle means that they must "do something" at the central level to give their own cadre the impression they are winning. They also need to have a Kathmandu-centric show of force to create an international stir to prod UN mediation, which they have been demanding.
"The Maoists are trying to see if psychological pressure will work," says Royal Nepali Army spokesman, Rajendra Thapa. "All they are trying to do is magnify their limited military strength. It's part of their strategy".
Details have emerged that the Maoists had come to an understanding with the UML that the moderate left would join the government and try to convince the king to discuss the constituent assembly demand. In exchange, the Maoists had agreed not to set off blasts and suspended assassinations in the capital. Indeed, there has been no major sabotage since the bomb on 15 July at the Nepal Telecom building in Jawalakhel killed an elderly woman.
However, the army killed Bharat Dhungana a few weeks after the UML joined the government and that is when the Maoists announced their Valley blockade. A pro-Maoist intellectual in Kathmandu told us: "The blockade will be effective in weakening the palace, which is the henchman of the capitalist class and its traditional supporters."
However, it is clear that the upper middle class will only be inconvenienced by the blockade. The real sufferers will be day labourers, transport workers and vegetable vendors. There is a danger for the Maoists that even if the blockade is 'successful', it will generate a backlash against them from the very people they seek to bring to their fold.
What the blockade could be is a dress rehearsal for more serious attacks in future. The Maoists could be using cloud cover on the Valley rim during the monsoon to move their forces while the army is distracted with protecting highways. The Maoists want to regain the strength they had in the Valley last year when 500 of their 'special task force' commandos were supposed to be stationed here. But the army used intelligence from captured Maoists to pinpoint safe houses and decimate the force. The Maoists have admitted that they had to withdraw 350 of their guerrillas from the Valley because of "harm caused by traitors".
The army strategy now seems to be guarding the trails in the surrounding hills to prevent infiltration. It claims to have penetrated the urban core with enough informants to make it difficult for any Maoist clusters to stay in the city. "The blockade is a way for the Maoists to show they are still strong," says spokesman Thapa.
The government says there is enough stock of fuel and other essentials for now, but there is bound to be panic if the blockade is tight and extends beyond two weeks. The Valley needs 100,000 litres of petrol a day, 150,000 litres of diesel, 300,000 litres of kerosene and 120,000 litres of aviation fuel. The Nepal Oil Corporation depots in Thankot and the airport have enough petrol to last 15 days, diesel for 40 days and 25 days for aviation fuel.
There is enough stored rice in the government's godowns and private shops to last months. However, what will complicate matters is if a prolonged blockade causes panic buying and price gouging. The government says it will not let any shortages happen and has asked consumers and businesses for their cooperation.
Coupled with threats that forced the closure of some of the country's largest companies and hotels, the blockade will put direct pressure on the palace to give in to the demand for talks. For the Maoists, Kathmandu is a place where they can achieve a lot with relatively little: it is vulnerable to sieges, it is easy to spread panic and, despite the army's crackdowns, it is easy to hide in the city outskirts.
The Maoists are hoping that the panic will turn to discontent and fuel an urban uprising. That is a gamble, as it could also easily turn the other way and breed resentment against the rebels.
(With additional reporting by Ram Prasad Pudasaini)