Congress president Sonia Gandhi met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Tuesday to review the continuing standoff with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), even as the political crisis in Maharashtra escalated. 42 Congress MLAs shot off a letter to State party chief Manikrao Thakre, complaining about Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, whose zeal to tackle corruption has already made him the target of the NCP.

Simultaneously, a senior NCP leader stressed that if the impasse didn’t end before the next Union Cabinet meeting on Thursday, its Ministers would be forced to stay away, an action that would lead to the NCP quitting the United Progressive Alliance government.

“We are a responsible party and it wouldn’t behove a leader of the stature of Sharad Pawar to be absent from two successive Cabinet meetings,” a senior leader said, adding, “If we don’t attend the meeting on Thursday, then there can be no turning back.”

The exit of the NCP’s Ministers may not affect the UPA government unduly, he said, but it could destabilise the Congress-NCP government in Maharashtra, as the NCP’s State unit has said that if its Central Ministers quit the UPA government, they would follow suit in Maharashtra, where they have held power together for 13 years. On Wednesday, State leaders will be in the capital to finalise the NCP’s future course of action.

The NCP sought to do some damage control by turning the conversation away from wish-lists and the demand for Mr. Chavan’s head to attacking the Congress’ way of functioning.

NCP in damage-control mode

Embarrassed at the media’s portrayal of the Nationalist Congress Party as corrupt in Maharashtra and greedy at the Centre, the party sought to do some damage control by turning the conversation away from wish-lists and the demand for Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan’s head to attacking the Congress’ way of functioning — that the Congress was “not inclusive enough,” that it did not know how to share decision-making with its allies, and that no coordination meeting had been held in two years. Indeed, they pointed out that DMK leader T.R. Baalu called on NCP leader Sharad Pawar on Tuesday, and that all the non-Congress constituents of the UPA had expressed sympathy for their demands.

However, NCP leaders were at pains to say that whatever the eventuality, they would continue to support the UPA government till the 2014 elections.

Meanwhile, Congress general secretary Janardan Dwivedi sought to assuage the NCP’s feelings, saying the Congress had “always considered the NCP an important constituent of the UPA” and an “equal partner” in Maharashtra. Simultaneously, senior party sources said the “revolt” in Maharashtra was being fuelled by Mr. Chavan’s rivals who wanted his job but expressed confidence that the MLAs’ grievances would be addressed.