The Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) said on Wednesday that they would soon provide a "stable" government in Maharashtra but indicated that the terms of engagement with the Shiv Sena have to be worked out.
"There cannot be any government in Maharashtra without the Shiv Sena, NCP and the Congress. We are trying our best to resolve issues," said NCP leader Nawab Malik, addressing the media along with Congress leader Prithviraj Chavan, who simply said the talks will continue. For the final round of talks, the Shiv Sena leadership will come to Delhi, the Congress said.
The Congress and NCP held discussions on Maharashtra hours after a meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and NCP chief Sharad Pawar fueled speculation about a BJP master manoeuvre.
Top Congress leaders went to Sharad Pawar's home while a senior Congress leader separately met the Shiv Sena's Sanjay Raut.
"Some details" of power sharing with the Sena need to be sorted out while a common minimum agenda is almost done, Congress sources said.
Sonia Gandhi had been reluctant to join hands with the ideologically contrasting and pro-Hindutva Shiv Sena, which fell out with long-time ally BJP after the two won the Maharashtra election together.
According to the deal in circulation, the Shiv Sena has to share chief ministership with the NCP, with its chief Uddhav Thackeray getting the first turn. Other details include two deputy chief ministers, one from the Congress.
A coordination committee to find common ground between the vastly mismatched parties is also part of the deal. The Shiv Sena may also be asked to tone down its Hindutva rhetoric, which is anathema to the Congress. Earlier on Wednesday, Sonia Gandhi was urged by Kerala ally Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) to snub the Sena.
Sources say what may have precipitated the Congress's decision to bend on Sena is the meeting between PM Modi and Sharad Pawar this afternoon and reports that the NCP chief has been offered the post of President by the BJP in a track running parallel to the Sena-NCP-Congress talks. Two days ago, the PM had significantly praised the NCP during a debate in the Rajya Sabha.
The PM-Sharad Pawar meeting was ostensibly on the farm crisis in Maharashtra, but the 45-minute discussion also telegraphed a strong message to the Congress -- that any more dilly-dallying could prove costly and the opportunity of ruling India's commercial hub would be lost. After the meeting, Mr Pawar even tweeted about inviting PM Modi to a conference.
NCP sources said it was time for the Congress to decide as time was limited.
Last week, the Sena broke up with long-term partner BJP over its demand for rotational chief ministership and pulled out its only minister in PM Modi's government, stopping short of exiting the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The Sena was about to stake claim to power when the Congress pulled back at the last minute, declaring in a press statement that it needed more discussions with Sharad Pawar.
With the top three parties failing to produce letters of support, Maharashtra was placed under President's Rule.
A week later, on Monday, Mr Pawar met with Sonia Gandhi in Delhi and repeated to the media that "more meetings" would take place.
A desperate Sena displayed optimism even after cryptic comments from the NCP chief, who is a veteran at deal-making without letting on much.
"All obstacles that were raised in the last 10-15 days have been cleared. By tomorrow you will know that all obstacles have been cleared," Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut told reporters.
"When 3 parties form a government, then the process is long. This process has started today. In coming two to five days, when the process is completed, a government will be formed in Maharashtra," he was quoted as saying by news agency ANI later on Wednesday evening.