- The Congress has called a meeting of its decision-making group
- The Congress leadership is undecided over support to Sena
- Sena leader Sanjay Raut is likely to meet top Congress leaders in Delhi
Just when it seemed to be coming around to the idea of backing the Shiv Sena in forming government in Maharashtra despite their huge ideological mismatch, the Congress took a step back and said there was no decision yet. The Congress Working Committee (CWC), the party's top decision-making body, has authorized party president Sonia Gandhi to take the final call.
All eyes are now on Sonia Gandhi with Congress's ally Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) of Sharad Pawar stressing that it will decide on whether and how to support the Sena only when the Congress arrives at its decision.
"Whatever decision is to be taken will be taken only after discussions with the Congress," said Sharad Pawar, making it clear that the ball is in the court of the Congress. After a meeting of the NCP core group, a party leader repeated the statement.
The CWC met to discuss its options after the BJP, short of a majority, exited the race on Sunday. Sonia Gandhi remains personally reluctant to back the Shiv Sena, a move that will mark a big ideological shift for the Congress.
"We will discuss what our Maharashtra leaders want," said Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge, who headed to Mumbai for discussions with MLAs. Sonia Gandhi also met with former chief ministers and CWC members from Maharashtra.
The NCP and Congress came into the picture after the BJP and Shiv Sena failed to resolve a feud that began hours after they won a clear majority in last month's Maharashtra election.
Backing the Sena, a party steeped in Hindutva politics and "anti-Congressism", is anathema to the Congress; to take such a step, the party is likely to insist on a common minimum programme.
Congress MLAs are at a resort in Jaipur in party-ruled Rajasthan for protection from "poaching" attempts. Most of them are inclined to support a non-BJP government in Maharashtra.
"We are discussing all the options before us. We have not decided anything yet," senior Maharashtra Congress leader Ashok Chavan told news agency ANI. He said the party "wants a stable government in Maharashtra and not President's Rule".
Those in the Congress who favour backing the Sena argue that the BJP formed governments in Goa and Manipur even when they were not the single largest party, and the governors allowed such BJP-led coalitions to take power.
For the Sena too, accepting Congress support will mean a loss of identity, which leaves the stability of any arrangement between the two suspect.
While the Congress leadership in Delhi is under increasing pressure from its Maharashtra MLAs, one of its leaders in the state, Sanjay Nirupam, warned the party that such a move would be "disastrous". He tweeted: "In the current political arithmetic in Maharashtra, it's just impossible for Congress-NCP to form any government. For that we need Shiv Sena. And we must not think of sharing power with Shiv Sena under any circumstances. That will be a disastrous move for the party."
On Monday, Mr Nirupam added: "No matter who forms government and how, political instability in Maharashtra cannot be ruled out now. Get ready for early elections. It may take place in 2020. Can we go to the elections with Shiv Sena as partner?"
The BJP won 105 seats in last month's Maharashtra election. Along with the Sena's 56, the NDA had a clear majority. But the Sena refused to form government with the BJP without a "50:50" deal including rotational chief ministership. After the BJP withdrew from the race, saying it could not form a government on its own, the Sena is looking to take power with the support of the NCP (54) and Congress (44).