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Pawar prods, Cong stalls
- Allies drive hard bargain for trophy

New Delhi, Oct. 17: The bargaining table in Delhi remained crowded through the day but the throne in Mumbai was still awaiting its new occupant when night fell.

Fresh from the triumph in Maharashtra, the Congress and the NCP were locked today in tough bargaining for the chief minister's chair ' a trophy that has become a bone of contention after Sharad Pawar's party emerged with the largest number of MLAs.

Senior leaders of the two partners ' Congress chief Sonia Gandhi's political secretary Ahmed Patel and Pawar's lieutenant Praful Patel ' have been assigned to hold consultations. The emissaries held a round of talks this evening and briefed their respective leaders.

The Congress started building its case for the Maharashtra chair after Pawar met Sonia at her home this morning. The two Patels, too, were present at the meeting.

Pawar is understood to have conveyed to Sonia his party's 'rightful' claim as it has won 71 seats ' two more than the Congress.

Sources in the NCP said Pawar also asked Sonia to follow the so-called Maharashtra model that evolved when the Congress and the NCP came together to form a coalition ministry in 1999.

The principle envisaged that the chief ministership would go to the largest party in the alliance, which the Congress was in 1999 as it had won 75 seats to the NCP's 58.

Sonia is understood to have not made any commitment on conceding the top post in Maharashtra.

Congress sources said Sonia's reservations stemmed from the party's conviction that the mandate in Maharashtra was for the coalition as a whole. It would be difficult for the party to ask Sushil Kumar Shinde to step down as he led the alliance to victory, the sources said. However, they added, Sonia has not yet made up her mind.

Soon after the Pawar-Sonia meeting, Margaret Alva, the Congress general secretary in charge of Maharashtra affairs, came up with a new argument in Mumbai. She said the Congress' tally of 69 should not be taken independently. The Congress had left seats from its quota for the CPM and, therefore, the Left party's three MLAs should be added to the 69, she said.

Citing the same logic vis-'-vis two Independents, the Congress claimed its effective tally is 74, higher than the NCP's even if an MLA from a small party ' the RPI(A) ' is counted among Pawar's supporters.

The CPM, which received emissaries from both camps today, took a neutral stand.

Alva's contention was contested by the NCP, which said if the number of supporters is the criterion, it can count on nine to 10 Independents. Some NCP leaders also mooted a proposal ' seen as a pressure tactic ' to offer only outside support to a Congress government if their party is not given the chief minister's post.

Emerging from his meeting with Sonia, Pawar appeared to be in no hurry to settle the leadership issue, saying government formation could take two to four days. However, there are expectations in both camps that it could be sorted out by tomorrow.

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