Amid mixed signals from the Congress on the fate of its existing alliance in Maharashtra, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) has armed itself with a pre-poll survey predicting a close fight between the Congress-NCP and the Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena combine in the upcoming Assembly elections in the State. According to the survey, the difference between the two fronts could be as little as five seats with neither crossing the half-way mark.

While the Congress-NCP could pick up 132 seats out of 288, the BJP-Sena combination is tipped to win 127 Assembly segments. The survey was conducted for the NCP by political scientists and activists across Maharashtra between July 15 and August 12.

That the Congress-NCP alliance has an uphill task at the hustings is no secret for the Congress as it acknowledges the role played by the Maharashtra Navanirman Sena in sabotaging the prospects of the BJP-Shiv Sena combine in the Lok Sabha elections. The Congress-NCP polled only 3.72 per cent votes more than BJP-Shiv Sena in the Lok Sabha polls.

Congress leaders tasked with preparing the party's startegy for the Assembly polls admit that if the Lok Sabha results are examined Assembly segment-wise, then Congress-NCP lead over BJP-Shiv Sena is just about a dozen seats. Yet -- bouyed by the success of the go-it-alone policy in Uttar Pradesh -- they leaders cite the trust deficit with its decade-old ally as reason for going different ways despite the saffron alliance closing in.

Pointing to the ground realities, NCP leader and Union Minister of State for Civil Aviation Praful Patel remained confident of the two parties fighting the elections together. ``We’ve been together for 10 years. We have always had a love-hate relationship but we share the same vote bank,’’ he told The Hindu.

Another senior NCP leader said it would be ``absolutely disastrous’’ for the two parties to go separate ways. ``If we go together, we have an upper hand; but only barely. We are presently strong in Vidharbha and Mumbai regions. Elsewhere – including Western Maharashtra where the NCP has always been strong and Khandesh (North Maharashtra) -- the BJP and the Shiv Sena are gaining in strength. If anything is slowing the saffron alliance, it is the leadership crisis in the BJP at the Centre and in the State.’’

Meanwhile, the Congress is going through a detailed exercise to gauge the pre-election mood in the State ahead of the Assembly elections. While the State unit has prepared a district-wise survey, the Congress central leadership has sent out four party seniors to survey each of the 48 Lok Sabha constituencies in Maharashtra. They have been told to wrap up the exercise by this weekend for the central leadership to take a final call on the alliance.

Even if there is an alliance, the Congress – riding on its Lok Sabha performance -- will drive a hard bargain to corner more seats. The NCP is harping on the 2004 formula when it contested 124 segments and the Congress 157. ``That formula cannot be replicated now that delimitation has changed the profile of constituencies,’’ said a Congress leader.

While the presence of Congress general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh, Digvijay Singh, in the coordination committee set up for Maharashtra elections, has given rise to speculations of the party favouring the go-it-alone line, leaders insist the two situations are incomparable. ``We had nothing to lose in U.P. But, in Maharashtra, we stand to lose a government if we break with the NCP and also upset the United Progressive Alliance arrangement at the Centre.’’