Nepali Times

They joked, they drank tea and they shared biscuits. Deputy Prime Minister Ram Chandra Poudel was in a relaxed Tihar mood. He quipped that he used to be the leader of a communist student union. Across the sofa, the Maoists' Kathmandu commander, Rabindra Shrestha slapped his knee and laughed out loud, saying: "How strange, I used to be with the Nepal Students' Union (the students' wing of the Nepali Congress)!" The maverick activist and career-mediator, Padma Ratna Tuladhar, who brought the two men together for the first ever face-to-face talks between a government minister and the Maoists, poured more tea and sat back to let the two sides size each other up. The bonhomie helped. After two hours of talks, a beaming Tuladhar dropped Poudel off at the Ministers' residential quarters in Pulchowk in a sleek metallic beige Corolla sedan. "So, they don't look like monsters, do they?" Tuladhar asked Poudel in the car. The Deputy Prime Minister agreed.

A week later, both the government and the Maoists seem to have sensed the overwhelming wish among the Nepali people that this fragile beginning for talks should succeed. After nearly over 1,600 deaths, mayhem, destruction and bad blood, public opinion is against more violence. Even Maoist leader Comrade Prachanda said in his 28 October statement that his movement was responding to the "people's wish" for dialogue. This perhaps is the reason why the positive vibes from last Friday's talks were so palpable, and the politicians made sure it got maximum coverage. In fact, it all seemed too good to be true.

To be sure, the road ahead is bumpy. But peace talks will be more difficult the longer the conflict drags on. As we have seen from mediation processes in Northern Ireland, from the Israel-Palestinian conflict, or Sri Lanka, violence has an in-built mechanism for escalation at its own inexorable momentum. If it goes on long enough there will be enough people who profit and benefit from it, and who will not want it to end. The Maoist insurgency in Nepal has not yet reached that stage, and we are at a point in time when domestic public opinion, the debate over the army's role, the constructive role played by the Royal Palace and international pressure have all converged to prepare the ground for talks. This window of opportunity will not last.

As things stand, there are four basic scenarios of where things can go from here in a good to bad sequence:

. Rapid progress in informal talks, both sides negotiate in good faith, government promptly meets Maoist demands, and a ceasefire is agreed upon.

. Maoists come up with demand for safe passage, there is prolonged haggling over agenda for official talks. Partisan interests try to prevent agreement.

. Government and Maoists get dragged into a propaganda war, Congress infighting gets worse, Maoists refuse talks, attacks on police resume.

. All talks deadlocked, government refuses to release detainees, Maoists launch nationwide attacks, paramilitary force is armed, army is deployed fully. Nation heads towards civil war.

Prachanda's latest deadline for the government to meet its pre-conditions, a response to the killing of three rebels in Kalikot district after the Poudel-Shrestha meeting, expires today (Friday). And from what we know of these conditions, they are not insurmountable. The government should have no problem acceding to them, and it must understand that if he does not produce results Prachanda will be under internal pressure from the Maoists themselves. At the talks on 27 October when Rabindra Shrestha reiterated the demand that Maoist leader Dinesh Sharma be released, Ram Chandra Poudel is reported to have exclaimed in English: "Done!"

Poudel's goal at the talks was to assess if the Maoists were genuine. Talks could be a Maoist ploy to buy time, impress the domestic public, donors, and the international community that they are reasonable revolutionaries. Poudel appears to have been persuaded that they were genuine. The Maoists, for their part, inquired after the fate of Sher Bahadur Deuba's committee, and asked that the government appoint an official negotiator. It's funny the Maoists should ask that, since the ruling party should have done at without anyone asking. But we all know what the problem is: it is the Nepali Congress' chronic infighting. Koirala and Deuba can't stand each other, and there is factional competition to take credit from future peace talks.

Ram Chandra Poudel seems to be an acceptable compromise, and he will need to be given the space and the mandate by his party to negotiate. Deuba, meanwhile, has been sulking and taking rearguard action, and we hear even lobbying with foreign embassies to get himself reinstated in the peace committee. In an interview in September (# 9) Deuba told us it didn't really matter who talked to the Maoists, since the credit would go to the party. It is time for him, in the nation's interest, to show the same magnanimity now towards Poudel. Because if the government and the party do not end their bickering soon and sit down to prepare for talks they could end up helping the Maoists re-justify calling off talks and going back to war.

What is intriguing is why the Maoists, who are winning the psychological, military and information battle against the government, agreed to talks at this point. After all, as an ideologically-motivated guerrilla force with a long-term plan for the capture of state power, time is on their side. They don't lose much by talking, they can go back to jungle any moment by saying the government is not serious about meeting their demands. And these are demands we don't really know much about anyway: is Dinesh Sharma just a red herring, or are there more serious hidden demands about constitutional changes? We may finally know, for instance, if the Maoists really want to abolish the monarchy and turn Nepal into a people's republic.

In the end, even the Maoists need to gauge public opinion. Political power may come out of a barrel of a gun, but it is the people who will keep them there. So far, the gun has taken precedence over hearts and minds. The Maoists may have won many battles, but they haven't yet won the public opinion war. Dunai, for instance, may have been a tactical victory, but it was a strategic turning point. It overturned many givens: it galvanised government resolve to partially deploy the army; the prime minister and king were forced to clarify each others' positions; and the present talks got their impetus.

Whatever may be Prachanda's reason to come to the table, the government has no alternative but to negotiate. The Maoists have shown their flexibility by removing some of their early pre-conditions, successfully throwing the ball in the government's court. The ruling party needs to show similar adaptability. That is why these things are called negotiations: you give as well as take.

The Maoists have not yet declared that the talks are a substitute to the war, nor have they shown signs that they have slowed mobilisation. What the government needs to do is to hold on to the Maoists' expressed desire to come to talks and create the conditions where they will keep talking. Otherwise the blame for failure will be laid squarely on the feckless ruling party, and the inability of its leaders to look beyond the tip of their noses.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)