How the tables have turned. Political parties that till six months ago were talking about bringing the Maoists into the mainstream find themselves on the periphery. And the Maoists are centre stage, in the limelight.
By launching street agitations fronted by their student wings and refusing to be a part of the government-Maoist peace talks, the parties have deliberately distanced themselves. Their sights are on a rerun of the 1990 uprising that turned the absolute monarchy into a constitutional one. This time, they threaten, the change may be from a constitutional monarchy to a republic.
Realising that most Nepalis blame them for the ills of the past 13 years, the parties have appropriated the Maoist agenda by borrowing their slogan and trying to appear more radical than the revolutionaries. They are all set to begin their campaign with a big mass meeting in Kathmandu on Sunday, 4 May.
Two quotes from this week could be a preview of things to come. The UML's Madhab Kumar Nepal: "Did you see the what happened outside the campuses? That is only a rehearsal. Wait for the real show. That's yet to come." Girija Prasad Koirala of the Nepali Congress: "The king should decide: democracy or republic."
The Narayanhiti Royal Palace and the Chand government seem to be taking these threats seriously. The reactive reduction in fuel prices, release of detained students and the setting up of an inquiry into student beheadings in Hetauda all show they do not want the situation to get out of hand.
In the meantime, the threat of an uprising by the political parties has almost eclipsed the peace talks that began this week with the Maoists submitting their demands to the government.
Much of it is familiar and unremarkable-nothing that would prompt a political party to go underground and start a 'people's war'. The Maoists appear to have stepped down from their demands regarding the monarchy-letting the people decide the 'fate' of that institution. "For now, the republican agenda could take a backseat," says Dhurba Kumar, a Tribhuban University political science professor. However, Kumar forsees "dire consequences" in the face-off between the political parties and the monarchy if the situation continues without a proper resolution.
The anger on the street is not spontaneous but the palace will continue to be confident about having the upper hand as long as the protests do not blossom into a mass uprising. For their part, leaders from the political blocs of the dissolved parliament are convinced they have more staying power than either the palace or the Maoists. "The UML and the Nepali Congress still represent a bigger chunk of the people," says Raghuji Panta of the UML.
The palace may be under pressure from the parties and the Maoists, but it has unprecedented support from international observers. Most Western embassies-many of whose representatives make no secret of their disdain for Nepal's homegrown politicos-are lined up behind the palace as the talks with the rebels begin.
India has often said the palace should not sideline the political parties, but the attitude of the conservative political leadership in New Delhi is unclear. There is a hint that India may approve of a stronger position from the palace and the placement of a 'guided democracy' for a limited period.
Meanwhile, the Chand government has received a boost. On 25 April, Nepal and the US government signed the Antiterrorism Assistance program, which provides support through training and equipment to 'partner nations'. This was followed by the arrival of the Chief of Army Staff of India, Nirmal Chandra Vij, to assure the government of continued assistance. He announced additional aid in military hardware worth Rs 1.7 billion, over and above the Rs 3 billion already provided.
The palace's strategy now is to handle the Maoists and the parties separately. Their two differing agendas makes this possible-the Maoists want to be included in an interim government while the political parties are holding out for all-party government. The crux of the issue is who will lead this 'national government'.
At press time on 1 May, there was an unconfirmed report that the king was planning to grant a joint audience to the major political parties Friday. So far he has only met political leaders one-on-one. This move would constitute a watershed, after which Nepal's politics could take a new turn.
Were that to happen, there would still be a problem. The rebels may not join the all-party government, leaving us to wonder how the Maoists would be accommodated. But before we get to that, this is the more pressing question: What is to be done regarding the protesting political parties?