There was an almost jaunty, determined spring in the step of Brigade No 1, Western Nepal Division of the People's Liberation Army as they marched into the village of Taratal. Admittedly, most of them were wearing trainers and some 60-year-old Lee Enfield rifles were among the AK-47s they were carrying, but this was definitely an army on a roll. On this, the 10th anniversary of the "People's War", the Maoists claim to control 90 per cent of the country and are set to play a decisive part in the political future of Nepal.
Commander Atack ("Tireless") led his troops on to the village football pitch and, surrounding himself with his personal guards, took the place at the table which the villagers had made ready for him. "When we started the People's War", he began, "we had few supporters and were fighting with spears, knives and muskets. We have now become the guiding light in Nepali politics and are confident that the war will soon end in victory."
When the insurgency began, it was confined to the remote, mountainous areas of Nepal where the Maoists' message was eagerly received by an impoverished and caste-ridden society. Today, the Maoists control vast areas in the prosperous lowlands of Western Terai, on the borders of India. Curfews and shoot-outs occur nightly and bombs go off in cities such as Kathmandu and Pokhara, the centre of Nepal's trekking business. The army admits that it only controls the country's regional capitals and that the Maoists roam freely in the rural areas.
Government buildings lie in heaps of rubble throughout the area. "Without the support of the people", Cdr Atack explained, "the army cannot operate." He might have added "without the fear of the people" as well. Where people have not gone willingly to their side, the Maoists have seized property, abducted children and held public executions as an example to those who defy the political cadres. More than 12,000 have died in the People's War so far.
But the Maoists are aware that their army has reached its limit. "We are confident that we can take any major city in Nepal but, the problem is, we cannot hold them."
At a party plenum last year, the leadership admitted that the capital, Kathmandu, which is encircled by some 35,000 government troops, is beyond their reach. In a pragmatic move taken straight from Chairman Mao's Little Red Book, they have joined forces with the bourgeoisie and made a deal with the other political parties of Nepal to defeat the common enemy, the King, and, once peace is restored, to take part in a constituent assembly.
King Gyanendra is now isolated and has become, among Maoists, democratic leaders, diplomats and journalists, a figure of derision and contempt. Only a few years ago, the King was able to call on help and arms from the US and Britain to fight his Himalayan version of the "war on terror". Today, the international community views the King as the problem. The British ambassador, Keith Bloomfield, has been threatened with expulsion for being outspoken on the subject.
A year ago, the King sacked the Prime Minister and seized the powers which the kings of Nepal had enjoyed before democracy was introduced to the country in 1990.
Appointing his own henchmen to all key positions of power, suspending human rights such as freedom of speech, he announced that he and the army would sort out the Maoists. His efforts have ended in spectacular failure, alienated his subjects and left the country in military and political stalemate.
As the death toll rises and Kathmandu is paralysed almost daily by strikes and demonstrations, the Maoists and leaders of the political parties say they have no choice but to unite. "What else could we do?" said Ram Sharan Marat, a leader of the centrist Nepali Congress Party. "We have reached an impasse and the King is refusing to budge. Someone has to take responsibility for the country." Mr Marat warns that unless the King climbs down and becomes a constitutional monarch, there is no future for him in Nepal.
The King's attempt to seize political control by holding local elections last week served only to humiliate and discredit him further. The political leaders and Maoists called for a boycott of the elections, candidates were found for only half the posts to be filled and voters stayed away in droves. On election day more police and soldiers than voters were on the streets. Despite the government's threat to shoot at anyone attempting to disrupt the elections, demonstrators marched down the streets shouting "Down with the King!", "Bring back democracy!".
The country is held in a state of political paralysis and terror. So long as the King uses the army to impose his unpopular rule, the war will continue, tourists will stay away and the country's economic prospects look grim. Peace and bold political gestures do not stand a chance.
Sue Lloyd-Roberts's film report on the Maoists and Nepal is on BBC2's Newsnight tonight at 10.30pmReuse content