As Nepal woke up this month from the slumber of Dashain holidays, a political bombshell sent alarm bells ringing across the country.
Nepal's communist parties announced that they were forming a pan-leftist alliance, a combined communist force that would eventually become Nepal's single communist party. The Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) and the Nepal Communist Party (United), the party of Nepal's Maoist former rebels, said that they would contest the November general election as an alliance.
The announcement comes as the Maoists are in a coalition government with the Nepali Congress, a centrist democratic party. Is it deceit, or just opportunism? Did China orchestrate this? Is Nepal heading towards becoming a communist state? Questions began to fly.
"Goal of a single Communist Party in Nepal is a goal of Communist Republic of Nepal in place of a Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal," tweeted the former deputy prime minister, Bimalendra Nidhi of the Nepali Congress.
Rabindra Adhikari, a leader associated with the Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) party, tweeted: "Let there be a polarization of the left and the democratic parties. This is a global democratic exercise to form a majority government."
Perception of weakness
The Maoists had waged a decade-long war against the state for a "social and political transformation" - a conflict that took the lives of more than 16,000 people.
Peace was brokered in 2006, and today, there is a general agreement among political observers that ideology has little to do with Nepal's communists and their newfound unity.
"The main reason why this alliance took place at this moment is the Maoists' perception of their own weakness," said Aditya Adhikari, author of Bullets and the Ballot Box.
After the Maoists entered the peace process, they performed well in 2008 elections, but by 2013, they had become a poorly organised, distant third party.
"Their entire party organisation became really weak, as they had gone through numerous splits, and many in the rank-and-file who fought for them, abandoned them," Adhikari said, noting that despite their waning popularity, the Maoists remained on the scene.
"UML, which had treated the Maoists as a spent force, realised in the recent local elections that they still had some fire in them and would remain the third-largest party," said Ameet Dhakal, editor of the online portal Setopati.
The final round of local elections took place in September.
According to Krishna Khanal, a professor of political science at Tribhuvan University, the communist alliance "is all about power consolidation and not about communism".
"Both the UML and the Maoists have huge stakes in private banking," Khanal said.
They are also known to have investments in private health, education and building contracting. Local journalist Narayan Wagle laughed off the idea of Nepal's "left".
"We don't have left parties. We just have parties who call themselves the left," he said.
Dhakal said that the communists had become "very good at populist propaganda, and if trends of local elections are to be repeated, the left alliance can get a two-thirds majority". In such a case, Nepal may even have a stable government; the country's fractious politics have led to successive unstable coalitions, resulting in nine governments in nine years.
But the unity card did not come out of nowhere.
"There is a general belief in the Nepali press that this is more beneficial to China, and that might be true. China has always wanted a strong partner who can maintain stability and look after its security interest," Adhikari said.
Despite India's active diplomacy in forging peace between the Maoists and the state, relations between India and Nepal have been strained in recent years.
In 2015, under the premiership of UML leader KP Sharma Oli, Nepal faced a harsh blockade - India, displeased with Nepal's constitution, severely restricted the imports of fuel, food and other essentials from India - making life difficult for average Nepalis. "India practised the worst form of diplomacy - short-term and interfering. This is a result of that failure," Khanal said.
The alliance will force India to revisit its strategies, analysts say.
"India will now have to reach out to the same leaders they called pro-China and anti-India," Dhakal said.
As for Nepali leaders, alienating India is not seen as a winning strategy in the long run: "UML hopes that the presence of Maoist leaders will improve their relationship with India," Adhikari said.
Unity between two big parties with many strong and ambitious leaders is already proving complicated. How will they decide which leader from which party will stand for elections? How will the second-tier leaders feel about not getting an election ticket? Nayashakti, a breakaway faction of the Maoists, initially joined the alliance but promptly broke away after a disagreement over electoral seats.
"Besides the size of the parties and the ego of the politicians, in the past decade they have occupied very different ideological positions," Adhikari added. "The Maoists have been campaigning for the rights of marginalised groups, identity-based federalism, and the UML is completely opposed to any kind of ethnic politics. This tension could emerge in the future too."
This new political twist has left many guessing about possible outcomes. What is clear is that the former rebels are the junior players in this partnership. How the top brass of the Maoists will swallow this reality, and how power is played out in this alliance, will determine where the story goes from here.