Hectic back-channel talks are on ahead of Wednesday's meeting of the NCP. That meeting will decide the fate of their party's alliance with the Congress. Sources say both sides are trying to work out a compromise and have expressed hope of the matter to be resolved amicably. Sources in the Congress say they would look to reach out to the allies. It isn't clear if a mutually acceptable solution has been reached.
DMK's TR Baalu met NCP chief Sharad Pawar this morning but did not comment on what they spoke about. Mr Pawar then also met party leader Praful Patel at his residence.
Last night, Mr Pawar was not among the ministers present at the PM's dinner for outgoing President Pratibha Patil. Mr Pawar's RSVP, at a crucial point in back-channel talks with the Congress, was meant to keep the pressure on by conveying that he hasn't abandoned the idea of pulling his party out of the union government and providing external support. But sources say that there are enough signals that a settlement is in the works - like the carefully-chosen words of Mr Pawar's deputy, Praful Patel. "Our relationship with the UPA will continue till 2014. We are supporting UPA as a core ally and will continue to support this government till the very end," Mr Patel said in Delhi yesterday, with many reading into that the sub-text that peace will be brokered.
Explaining why the NCP needed another two days to decide, Mr Patel said yesterday the party needs to consult with its leaders from Maharashtra, who were not in Delhi as the Maharashtra Assembly was in session.
NCP leaders say they will not participate in any government function till they make a final call on their relationship with the Congress at the Centre. So while skipping the PM's dinner, they were present at a high tea for President Patil attended by MPs where Congress President Sonia Gandhi joked with Mr Patel - "kuch karo, Praful"(do something, Praful)." Opposition leader Sushma Swaraj shot back, teasing, "Kuch mat karo, Praful (don't do anything, Praful)."
Mr Pawar reportedly told the Congress last week that any changes in Delhi would not disturb their partnership in Maharashtra where the two parties have jointly shared power for three terms.
Sources on both sides say that while the rift between the Congress and the NCP is playing out as a tale of two cities - Delhi and Mumbai - it is the latter where the fault-lines appear deepest. In Maharashtra, sources say, the NCP's top leaders, already feeling the heat from allegations of graft levelled by the opposition, are annoyed with Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, who is perceived to be in a sort of clean-up mode. Incorrect, said Mr Patel. "There is a section of the Congress party which has been spreading these canards...maybe they have malicious pleasure in making Congress-NCP relations go bad...this has happened in the past," he said.
In the Maharashtra Assembly on Monday, however, the NCP was asked to explain the business deals and expenditure underpinning the swanky new Maharashtra Sadan building in New Delhi - a huge guest house for the use of MPs and MLAs from the state when they travel to the national capital. The project was assigned to a contractor as part of a barter deal - in return for constructing this guest house at no cost, the builder gets development rights to land owned by the state in Mumbai. During the construction of the guest house, the cost has shot up by from Rs. 52 crore to Rs 152 crore. The government is not paying for this construction, but the benefit of the escalating costs, according to the Opposition, have been passed on to firms that were used as sub-contractors and have links to relatives of Chhagan Bhujbal, the NCP minister who runs the Public Works Department. Mr Bhujbal yesterday conceded to NDTV that a firm called Ideen which has his daughters-in-law as directors, was hired to provide furniture for the guest house - "Not too big, he said," describing the contract, "it was for five-six crores." He denied any conflict of interest because the contract, he said, was not given by the government.
Mr Chavan has also reportedly irked the NCP by asking for "a white paper" on irrigation. Till 2009, the Irrigation Ministry was led by Mr Pawar's nephew, Ajit Pawar. After that, it was given to the NCP's Sunil Tatkare. The Opposition alleges that in a decade, Rs 70,000 crore has been spent on dams with very little to show for it. The NCP, however, claims that Rs. 42000 crore were spent and significant land was irrigated. The chief minister wants a complete statement of accounts for the last decade.