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Cong plays incumbent card

New Delhi, Oct. 18: The Congress today sprang an 'incumbent' theory to contest the NCP's claim on the Maharashtra crown, gently nudging outgoing chief minister Sushil Kumar Shinde back into the race.

'The verdict in Maharashtra is for the incumbent government headed by the Congress,' asserted Margaret Alva, the party general secretary in charge of Maharashtra. Alva's statement came after Congress leaders held an hour-long meeting with party chief Sonia Gandhi.

With Shinde as its undeclared candidate, a team of Congress leaders called on Sharad Pawar tonight. Shinde, who enjoys the NCP leader's trust, was also part of the team but the talks were inconclusive.

The NCP leader gave no indication that his party would easily accept the incumbent principle and asserted that the 1999 principle should be accepted.

Pawar said his party would extend outside support to the new government rather than join it if the Congress did not accept an NCP chief minister.

'We are not angry. Let them form the government and decide the chief minister. We will give them support from outside for full five years,' he said.

However, after the meeting at Sonia's residence, Congress leaders said the party was not willing to give up the chief minister's post just because the NCP had secured two seats more.

Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh and Alva convinced rival contenders within the party for the chief minister's post not to stake claim at this stage but to back Shinde, sources in Mumbai said.

Alva, with Shinde standing beside her as they stepped out of 10 Janpath, said the Maharashtra verdict was not for any particular party in the Democratic Front but a vote for the Congress-NCP alliance.

'Unlike 1999, this was a pre-poll alliance. We fought the elections jointly with a joint manifesto and campaigned jointly. It is a vote for the incumbent government that we have jointly run for five years,' she said.

But Alva made it clear that her party was still prepared to approach negotiations with an open mind. 'We have not closed the door on anything.'

A compromise formula that the party has apparently envisaged is that if Pawar himself were to offer to head the new government, the Congress could consider it favourably. Another suggestion was to reward the NCP at the Centre.

The NCP, too, stepped up pressure from its home turf, collecting endorsements from Independents.

It requested the media to refer to the grouping as the NCP-Congress combine, not the other way round, to reflect the change in equations.

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