NEW DELHI: Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar, after a 45-minute meeting with Congress president Sonia Gandhi at her home in Delhi today, said more discussions would be held before a final word on getting together with the Shiv Sena to form government in Maharashtra. "We have to sort out some more issues," Sharad Pawar told reporters.
With leaders from both parties denying any decision, the biggest hint of an alliance in the making was seen in the gesture by the Congress and NCP not to put up candidates for the post of mayor or deputy mayor in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) elections. The cash-rich Mumbai civic body is controlled by the Shiv Sena.
Sources indicated that the two parties have inched closer to a Sena-NCP-Congress alliance but officially, asserted that more talks would be held to discuss the way forward.
"Sharad Pawar met the Congress president today and briefed her on the situation in Maharashtra. It was decided that in a day or two, representatives from the NCP and Congress will meet in Delhi to discuss the way forward," said Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala.
This was seen as a clear indicator that the Congress is on board with aligning with the Shiv Sena. A formula that has been floating around is a Shiv Sena chief minister and a deputy chief minister each from the NCP and Congress.
But each party is seen to be holding out in negotiations to get a bigger share.
Mr Pawar has largely been cryptic and noncommittal on these talks. It was a "courtesy call," said the NCP chief on his meeting with Sonia Gandhi.
His response earlier to questions about the meeting had left many wondering. Asked about the Shiv Sena saying it was in talks with the NCP to form the government in Maharashtra, Mr Pawar countered: "Really?"
Sonia Gandhi had been wary of any tie-up with the ideologically opposite Shiv Sena, the BJP's oldest ally-turned-ex. But she came around to the idea as the party's Maharashtra leadership insisted on the tie-up, arguing it was an opportunity to keep the BJP out in the state that is home to India's financial capital.
One of the canniest politicians in India, Mr Pawar is seen in the role of the bridge between the Shiv Sena and the Congress, and has reportedly held several conversations with Sonia Gandhi to persuade her to open up to the Sena.
"Do you think the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress government will happen," Mr Pawar was asked by reporters in Delhi.
"Shiv Sena-BJP contested separately, NCP-Congress contested separately, how can you say that? They (BJP-Sena) have to find their own way. We will do our own politics," said the 79-year-old, an expert in dodging media questions.
Reporters persisted: "But Shiv Sena is saying we will make a government along with Pawar Saheb...?"
Mr Pawar shot back: "Accha? (Really?)"
Some read in these responses a sign of pressure on him from the Centre to stall the alliance. On Friday, he had declared that the three parties would come together and form a government that would last a full term.
Top NCP leaders like Ajit Pawar and Praful Patel have been booked in Enforcement Directorate cases and the Income Tax department conducted raids on BMC contractors - a move seen as targeted at the Shiv Sena.
The BJP and Shiv Sena contested the Maharashtra state polls as allies and won a comfortable majority together. On the day of the election results, Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray reminded BJP president Amit Shah of his "50:50" promise of equal ministries and time-share at the chief minister's post. The BJP denies any such deal.
Last week, the Sena pulled out its only minister in the central government, signalling a separation from the BJP, its ally for more than three decades.