| Vilasrao Deshmukh outside Sonia Gandhi's residence in New Delhi after meeting her on Saturday. (PTI)
New Delhi, Oct. 30: Still reeling from the shock of being comprehensively 'outmanoeuvred' by the Congress in Maharashtra, Nationalist Congress Party leaders today said chief negotiator Praful Patel could have bungled.
'In the delicate art of negotiation, if you make one major concession to your interlocutor, you end up making your negotiating position untenable by ending up making a series of concessions.
'That is what happened after we conceded the chief minister's job to the Congress last Sunday. We have pointed this out to Praful,' a senior NCP leader said.
The NCP leadership was dumbstruck last night when the Congress dumped Sushil Kumar Shinde in favour of former chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, a prominent Maratha leader who fell out with Sharad Pawar a decade ago.
'Before and after we made the big concession of giving chief ministership to the Congress despite being the larger of the two parties, we were given to understand that Shinde would continue as chief minister.
'Which is why we elected R.R. Patil (a Maratha leader) for the deputy chief minister's post earlier yesterday. We did not at all expect Deshmukh's election,' said another NCP leader.
The NCP leadership is convinced that the Congress brought back Deshmukh to counter the consolidation of the powerful Maratha lobby behind it.
Nor are all sections in the NCP prepared to believe Shinde was the Congress frontrunner for the job till last evening.
The reason for the NCP's doubts is that the Congress chose to clam up on the leadership issue soon after the parties announced an understanding on government formation on Wednesday night.
NCP leader Pawar had then apparently prepared to make a statement that his party gave up chief ministership to allow a prominent Dalit leader (Shinde) to continue in office. But the statement was reportedly not made on a Congress suggestion that it would adversely affect the formal election of the legislature party leader.
NCP leaders do not appear to have imagined the Congress would replace a Dalit chief minister.
They also seem to have banked too much on assurances from Shinde that he was the high command's nominee regardless of what the MLAs said.
Indications are an atmosphere of gloom has settled in the NCP camp in Mumbai and leaders have yet to reconcile with yesterday's shock.
Praful, who a few days ago claimed the NCP state leadership would revolt if he conceded the chief ministership to the Congress, is said to be facing uncomfortable questions from the rank and file.
The 13-day drama that culminated in Deshmukh's election has also dented Pawar's image in the NCP state unit.