On the day the Maharashtra results were declared on October 24, former chief minister Prithviraj Chavan surprised many in the party by hinting hints that the Congress-NCP alliance could be open to talks with the Shiv Sena for government formation. Congress president Sonia Gandhi then promptly told the party’s state leaders not to be “adventurous”.
In the days that followed, many other state Congress leaders, egged on by newly elected MLAs, started talking about the possibility as the Sena-BJP tug of war intensified. But Sonia and other Congress central leaders were not amused, given the ideological differences between the two parties.
But Chavan, sidelined in the party by Rahul Gandhi and looking for resurrection of his political career, and other state Congress leaders kept up pressure, reached out to the NCP and its chief Sharad Pawar. Similar pressure was building up in the NCP.
While Rahul too was said to be against tying up with the Sena, as its stand-off with the BJP continued, the Congress and NCP finally decided to play ball, setting the condition that any meaningful talks could be held only after the Sena came out of the NDA.
The state Congress leaders then played on the insecurities of the MLAs. It was conveyed to the central leadership that almost two-thirds of the party’s 44 MLAs were getting restive. The Sena made its leanings clear by pulling out its minister from the Narendra Modi Cabinet.
Talking about how Sonia had changed her mind, a senior leader said, “Reluctant, she had to change her stand in the face of the collective resolve of the Maharashtra Congress leadership to keep the BJP at bay.”
With the adventure turning into a fiasco on Saturday, Sonia was said to be unhappy. But the Congress is now sucked into the vortex of government formation with the Sena, from which it might be hard for it to come out.
The political developments could also add to the deep mistrust the Congress and Sonia have for Pawar. Over the last fortnight, as the talks dragged on, doubts did emerge in the minds of the party’s key interlocutors regarding Pawar’s intentions and role.
Pawar’s initial advice to the Congress to not act in a hurry, his party’s decision to seek more time from the Governor several hours before the deadline was to end, and his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi last week were all developments that the Congress struggled to make sense of.
On Saturday, the Congress was not present at the press conference with the NCP and Sena, which was meant to project that the three sides were still together. At an independent press conference, senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel, asked if Pawar was unaware of nephew Ajit’s move, declined to give a direct answer.
Sources said Pawar had assuaged some of their concerns by parading some of the NCP MLAs who had accompanied Ajit to Raj Bhavan for the swearing-in.
A senior AICC functionary hinted the three parties would evolve a joint strategy to prevent the BJP from engineering defections. All MLAs have been cautioned that if they chose to switch loyalties, they would have to face a united opposition in the resultant bypolls.
In the morning, the Congress took a head count of its MLAs. After ensuring that its flock was intact, the party flew them to Jaipur. A proposal to put up Congress and NCP MLAs in the same resort was discussed, but Pawar advised against it.