The Maoists’ stunning electoral surge, only two years after they came overground, left the royalists dumbstruck and panicking, the mainstream communists of the UML gasping for breath, and the Indian mission in the throes of anxiety.
Pursued and persecuted till only the other day, the Maoist cadres took Kathmandu in a euphoric octopus-like embrace this afternoon. They jammed the streets, unfurled long and loud processions and shook this somnolent capital with the vigour of their victory.
The town centre was a throbbing red tableau - thousands of flags and banners fluttering and seamlessly merging on ground, the air an eruption of vermilion. And floating above them, the ringing cry that is beginning to unsettle the insulated Kathmandu elite: Lal salaam! Lal salaam!
As trends firmed up towards the evening, it became apparent the Maoists were headed to become the largest single group in the 240 seats that are being decided on a first-past-the-post basis. Nearly 60 per cent of the 601 seats in the Constituent Assembly will be decided by a complex proportional representation vote, whose results will take a couple of weeks to come. But if current results are any indication, the Maoists should dominate the proportional vote as well.
Taken by surprise and lost on explanations, a senior Indian diplomat said: "We obviously missed something, this is astonishing and calls for fresh assessments."
Never enamoured of the Maoists, even though Prachanda and his second-in-command Baburam Bhattarai spent long years underground in India, New Delhi had been backing the more middle-of-the-road parties like the Nepali Congress and the UML to win the bulk of the seats.
Prachanda, on his part, has often bracketed India with the US as an unfriendly power. Although he sounded conciliatory in the flush of victory - "We would like to assure India that we would like to work closely with them" - New Delhi may now have to scramble to correct what has turned out to be a huge miscalculation.
Nepal itself now seems set on the road to becoming a republic; the future of King Gyanendra and the Shah monarchy hangs by a thread straining under the weight of the pro-Maoist mandate.
But sources close to the palace hinted to The Telegraph that the king was still trying to retain relevance in the power set-up. "Nothing can be ruled out. Don’t forget, he has his linkages with the Maoists, they were talking directly at one time," a source said, indicating that he could leverage the Nepali Army to strike a deal. The Maoists want their PLA integrated into the national army and there could be room for manoeuvre here.
Most analysts believe, though, that despite Gyanendra’s desperate feelers to the new victors, it is too late in the day for such a deal, especially in the face of such a pro-republican mandate.
Narainman Bijukchhe of the Left-wing Nepal Workers’ and Peasants’ Party (NWPP), who won in neighbouring Bhaktapur yet again, underlined the message of the vote thus: "The people want fundamental changes, the message from them is that a republic headed by a President must be created now."
Prachanda, who took the Pharping seat near Kathmandu by a mile, appeared briefly to acknowledge a jubilant horde at the Birendra International Convention Centre. "This is a historic day for us and for Nepal," he said. "This is a mandate for an inclusive federal democratic republic."
Profusely garlanded, his face barely visible behind the girdle of marigolds, Prachanda reached out to the entire political class to unitedly work for a "progressive agenda".
Most top Maoist leaders, including Bhattarai, military commander Rambahadur Thapa "Badal", Krishna Bahadur Mahara, Pampha Bhusal and Hisila Yami, have won their seats. Many others are set for victory.
Madhav Nepal, who was projecting himself as the next Prime Minister, lost his Kathmandu seat and resigned as UML general secretary accepting responsibility of the UML rout.
Nepal isn’t the only major UML casualty, most of his senior colleagues have been drubbed, the Left-wing space voraciously eaten up by the Maoists.
The Koirala clan, too, has been wiped out in a verdict that has left the Nepali Congress reduced, though not devastated. Acting party president Sushil Koirala was defeated in Nepalgunj and resigned his post. Sujata Koirala, daughter of Prime Minister G.P. Koirala and another claimant for future prime ministership, was humbled in the family’s pocket borough near Biratnagar. Cousin Shekhar Koirala fared no better, losing in Morang.
The Koiralas’ Terai home ground was run over by recently sprung Madhesi rights groups like the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF). Results from Madhes are slow to come, but the trends suggest local parties have benefited at the expense of the Nepali Congress and the Maoists have made deep inroads into the Terai’s pahadi pockets.
All eyes are now on whether the balance of power in Kathmandu will swing drastically towards the Maoists. Several key interests - the Kathmandu elite, the US and India, the army and the Nepali Congress - will probably now seek to politically contain the Maoists.
But with the reds leading the run, one analyst did not even rule out the possibility of Prachanda using the muscle of the mandate to seek Prime Minister G.P. Koirala’s job which, at the moment, combines the roles of head of state and head of government.