Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar met with Congress president Sonia Gandhi on Monday as the two parties explored how to get together with the Shiv Sena to form government in Maharashtra. His response earlier to questions about the meeting left many wondering. Asked about the Shiv Sena saying it was in talks with the NCP to form government, Mr Pawar countered: "Really?"
Sonia Gandhi had been wary of any tie-up with the ideologically opposite Shiv Sena, the BJP's oldest ally-turned-ex. But she came around to the idea as the party's Maharashtra leadership insisted on the tie-up, arguing it was an opportunity to keep the BJP out in one of the most important states.
One of the canniest politicians in India, 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 by reporters in Delhi.
"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's one-word response was: "Accha? (Really?)"
On Friday, he had declared that the three parties would come together and form a government that would last a full term.
NCP leaders brushed off Mr Pawar's comments as a response to "inane" questions from the media but sources say there is pressure on him from the Centre to stall the alliance. Top NCP leaders like Ajit Pawar and Praful Patel have been booked in Enforcement Directorate cases and the Income Tax department conducted raids on Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) contractors - a move seen as targeted at the Shiv Sena, which controls the cash-rich civic body. Sources also say that while the NCP has ceded the Chief Minister's post in talks with the Shiv Sena, the party is keen to get key portfolios and the comments may be posturing to attain that.
NCP leader Nawab Malik had said the Sonia Gandhi-Sharad Pawar meeting will accelerate the process of forming a government in Maharashtra, which was placed under President's Rule last week after no party was able to show the support of a majority. Mr Malik said after the meeting, the leaders of the Congress and NCP will sit down together tomorrow to discuss the government formation in the state.
Congress and Shiv Sena leaders will also meet after this.
The BJP and Shiv Sena contested the Maharashtra state polls as allies and won a comfortable majority together. 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 denies 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.