After weeks of hard-nosed bargaining, the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) on Tuesday night announced their seat-sharing arrangement for the upcoming Assembly elections in Maharashtra. While the Congress will contest 174 seats, the NCP will fight 114 segments for the 288-member Assembly.

However, both parties did not disclose the names of the seats each would contest nor the prominent candidates in the fray. In a significant development, Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee president Manikrao Thakre and NCP leader Praful Patel reached out to the factions of the Republican Party of India (RPI) which were their allies in the past but have parted company to join the `third front’ in the State. And, both parties indicated a willingness to accommodate the RPI factions from their respective quotas.

The revised seat-sharing arrangement of the decade-old alliance was announced at a hurriedly organised press conference in the Congress headquarters here by Mr. Thakre, Mr. Patel and Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan.

Though there were contrary signals from the Congress central leadership to begin with, Mr. Thakre made it clear that the two parties would conduct a joint campaign and approach the electorate with a joint manifesto. Mr. Patel indicated that the manifesto would be unveiled in Mumbai in the next couple of days at a meeting to be addressed by prominent leaders of both parties.

About the delay in arriving at an agreement, Mr. Patel said there were no differences between the two parties; attributing the delay to the changed ground realities because of delimitation. And, as if to prove the point, Mr. Patel stepped in to bail out Mr. Chavan and Mr. Thakre in the face of a flurry of questions regarding the candidature of President Pratibha Devisingh Patil’s son Rajendra Shekhawat.

``Please don’t drag the President’s name into this,’’ Mr. Patel said even as Mr. Chavan sought to set the record straight by saying that Ms. Patil had kept herself away from the selection process. Asked if the presence of the President’s son among the wannabes had put the Congress in an embarrassing position, the Chief Minister said: ``She was not involved in the process.’’

However, Congress sources maintained that Mr. Shekhawat’s candidature had put the party in a tight spot as it had to revisit its candidates in the Amravati district. Mr. Shekhawat wants to contest the Amravati seat – presently held by Minister of State for Finance Sunil Deshpande. Mr. Deshpande has apparently been offered Achalpur instead but Congress leaders fear that the Marathas in the district may feel slighted by this change. Given the popularity of Mr. Deshpande among the Marathas and Muslims in the area, the fear is that this could upset the Congress prospects in the eight seats in the district even if the Minister agrees to contest from Achalpur.