Anita Joshua

NEW DELHI: Three weeks ahead of the withdrawal of nominations for the Maharashtra Assembly elections, the Congress was still undecided on retaining its existing alliance with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). “Uncertainty continues,” was how a senior Congress leader described the prevailing mood within the party on Maharashtra as the leadership weighs the prospects of reverting to the 1999 model when the two parties fought each other and joined hands to form the first Democratic Front Government.

Although there has been talk of the two parties sitting down for formal discussions on seat-sharing after the elections were announced last week, Congress leaders now maintain that such an exercise would be undertaken only once some kind of informal understanding is arrived at on the possibility of working out a mutually acceptable formula. Given that the NCP is a key ally of the Congress in the United Progressive Alliance arrangement, breaking the alliance is also not an easy task. At any juncture it will be a cause of embarrassment for both parties, but more so if formal talks fail.

Even as the election committee of the Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee is meeting in the State to shortlist candidates, informal channels of communication are open with the NCP to prepare for both scenarios. But, there were clear indications from the Congress that the 2004 arrangement whereby it contested 157 seats is totally unacceptable .

Asked whether the NCP was open to conceding more seats to the Congress, Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar on Tuesday said: “There is no proposal before us. Let them come up with a proposal.”Though open about its eagerness for a pre-poll alliance and evidently unhappy with the delay in seat-sharing talks, the NCP is still unwilling to make the first move. “They are the bigger party; they should take the first step,” Mr. Pawar said. He was responding to questions on who should take the initiative in beginning the seat-sharing negotiations.

The absence of urgency within the Congress leadership is tiring out not just the NCP but also middle-rung Congress leaders as they prepare for the crucial elections; the first major electoral battle after the Lok Sabha polls. But, the NCP is also conscious of the fact that the Congress could well be delaying the negotiations to leave little time for hard bargaining

Buoyed by its performance in the Lok Sabha elections, the Congress contention is that delimitation has changed the electoral dynamics of Maharashtra and the NCP ought to wake up to this reality.