Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar, after a 45-minute meeting with Congress president Sonia Gandhi at her home in Delhi on Monday, said they discussed the Maharashtra political situation but not government formation with the Shiv Sena.
"We have to sort out some more issues, we have not discussed forming an alliance with any party yet," Sharad Pawar told reporters, giving the impression that a Sena-NCP-Congress alliance may not be a done deal yet.
The NCP chief also rubbished speculation that he had left the door open for a tie-up with the BJP; the BJP won 105 seats in last month's Maharashtra polls and scored a comfortable majority with the Shiv Sena (56), which walked out of their alliance after a bitter power tussle. The NCP is only two seats behind the Sena.
"There is no question of supporting the BJP. We will have discussions with the Congress," said Mr Pawar, adding there was plenty of time to do so after President's Rule had been imposed in the state last week.
He repeatedly denied any discussion on partnering with the Sena. Asked whether Sonia Gandhi was still opposed to the idea, he said: "There was no talk of government formation. This meeting was all about discussing matters of Congress and NCP."
With leaders from both parties denying any decision, the biggest hint of an alliance in the making was seen in the gesture by the Congress and NCP not to contest the post of mayor or deputy mayor in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) elections. The cash-rich Mumbai civic body is controlled by the Shiv Sena.
"Sharad Pawar briefed Sonia Gandhi on the situation in Maharashtra. It was decided that in a day or two, representatives from the NCP and Congress will meet in Delhi to discuss the way forward," said Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala.
A formula that has been floating around is a Shiv Sena chief minister and a deputy chief minister each from the NCP and Congress.
As the NCP and Congress put off an announcement yet again, sources said each party is holding out in the negotiations to get a bigger share. The Sena's Sanjay Raut, however, displayed confidence that a Sena-led alliance was in the works and would take power soon.
Mr Pawar has largely been cryptic and noncommittal on the talks.
His response earlier on Monday to questions about the meeting with the Congress president had left many wondering. On the Shiv Sena saying it is in talks with the NCP, Mr Pawar countered: "Really?"
Sonia Gandhi has been wary of any tie-up with the ideologically opposite, pro-Hindutva Shiv Sena, the BJP's oldest ally-turned-ex. She came around to the idea as her party's Maharashtra leadership insisted on the tie-up, arguing it was an opportunity to keep the BJP out in India's financial hub. The Congress president was also advised that sitting on any decision would mean "hara kiri" (blunder).
Mr Pawar is seen in the role of the bridge between the Shiv Sena and the Congress, and has reportedly held several conversations with Sonia Gandhi to persuade her to open up to the Sena.
"Do you think the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress government will happen," Mr Pawar was asked on Monday morning.
"Shiv Sena-BJP contested separately, NCP-Congress contested separately, how can you say that? They (BJP-Sena) have to find their own way. We will do our own politics," said the 79-year-old, an expert in dodging media questions.
Reporters persisted: "But Shiv Sena is saying we will make a government along with Pawar Saheb...?"
Mr Pawar shot back: "Accha? (Really?)"
Some read signs of pressure on the veteran from the centre to stall the alliance. After all, it was Mr Pawar who had declared on Friday that the three parties would form a government that would last a full term.
Top NCP leaders like Ajit Pawar and Praful Patel face charges in Enforcement Directorate cases and the Income Tax department conducted raids on BMC contractors - a move seen as targeted at the Shiv Sena.
The BJP and Shiv Sena contested the Maharashtra state polls as allies and won. On the day of the election results, Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray reminded BJP president Amit Shah of his "50:50" promise of equal ministries and time-share at the chief minister's post. The BJP denied any such deal.
Last week, the Sena pulled out its only minister in the central government, signalling a separation from the BJP, its ally for more than three decades. But the NCP and Congress have since made the Sena wait.