The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Pawar dwarfs victor Cong
NCP eyes top post as ally celebrates

New Delhi/Mumbai, Oct. 16: The Congress camp today won Maharashtra, but the bigger winner was lurking in its ranks.

Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party emerged the surprise single-largest party in the votecount, pocketing 71 of the 288 Assembly seats, two more than alliance partner Congress. The unexpected win upturned the bargaining stance of the NCP, which now looks set to take a shot at the chief minister's chair.

As late as this afternoon, Pawar had gone on television that his party was not in the race for the hot seat. But he switched tune in the evening, saying the leadership should go to the largest party though he avoided directly staking his party's claim to the post.

'Even if they (Congress) get one seat more than us, I will accept their chief minister,' Pawar said in New Delhi, hinting at his party's intentions. He is expected to meet Congress chief Sonia Gandhi tomorrow for talks on government formation, NCP sources said.

NCP general secretary D.P. Tripathi was more forthcoming. After an informal huddle at Pawar's residence, he said: 'The democratic principle is that the largest party in the alliance forms the government. In line with this principle, five years ago we agreed to leave the chief ministership to the Congress.'

Pawar's victory comes only a fortnight after the cricket board elections in Calcutta in which he had ended up on the losing side. Asked which was the tougher election, he quipped: 'Of course, the BCCI.'

Congress-NCP supporters in Mumbai. (PTI)

At last count, the Congress-NCP alliance, along with smaller partner Republican Party of India (Athawale), was just five short of the magic 145 figure. The CPM, which won three seats, is expected to lend its support.

The BJP-Shiv Sena combine managed a tally of 117, winning 54 and 62 seats respectively.

This evening, Sonia preferred to celebrate the Maharashtra victory than go into the nitty-gritty of government formation. 'Let the final results come. We will sit together and discuss the issue,' she told reporters at 10 Janpath when sounded about who would be chief minister.

Pestered if the Congress would concede the hot seat to its partner as it had done in Jammu and Kashmir, she said that was a 'special case'.

It was not immediately clear how Sonia intended to grapple with the knotty issue but she put off a move to send senior colleagues Pranab Mukherjee and Ghulam Nabi Azad as central observers to Mumbai to oversee tomorrow's election of the Congress legislature party leader.

Among the NCP names doing the rounds for chief minister are those of Vijaysinh Mohite-Patil, deputy chief minister in Sushil Kumar Shinde's ministry, state NCP chief R.R. Patil and Pawar's son Ajit. Pawar is believed to be pushing for his son, but there could be resistance in the ranks.

Congress sources in Mumbai said the party would put up a good fight if push came to shove. Shinde is the party's frontrunner for the hotseat.

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