Multiple high-profile meetings in New Delhi and Mumbai on Monday, including one between NCP chief Sharad Pawar and Congress president Sonia Gandhi, failed to give any indication of breaking the 11-day- long deadlock over government formation in Maharashtra.
Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis met Union home minister Amit Shah, who is also the BJP president, in New Delhi and later said there is need to form a government in the state at the earliest.
However, all eyes were on the Pawar-Gandhi meeting in the national capital amid talks of realignment of political forces and intense speculation over possibility of a non-BJP government, perhaps headed by the Shiv Sena, in Maharashtra.
However, Pawar did not give any sign of his party changing its "we will sit in opposition" stand in Maharashtra, which is waiting for a new government more than a week after announcement of poll results on October 24.
After his meeting with Gandhi, the 78-year-old Maratha strongman, a former Congress leader, ruled out any possibility of him returning as Maharashtra chief minister and said those who have numbers should come forward and form the government.
"I have observed that the Shiv Sena is consistently criticising the BJP as they want to lead the government in Maharashtra. I informed Congress chief about the situation and ground reality in Maharashtra. I am returning to Maharashtra and will hold talks with my party colleagues," he said.
"We will hold discussions and decide the future plan of the party in Maharashtra. I will come back to Delhi in next couple fo days and will hold talks with Sonia Gandhi again," Pawar told reporters in the evening.
Asked if the NCP is considering supporting the Shiv Sena in government formation, Pawar said no one from the Uddhav Thackeray-led party has contacted him over the issue.
"No one from Shiv Sena has contacted me on this. The mandate for us (NCP) is to sit in the opposition. We do not have enough numbers to be in this race," said the political stalwart, reflecting lack of enthusiasm in the opposition camp to fish in the troubled waters.
Asked whether the Sena is playing the NCP card to get a better bargain with the BJP in government formation, Pawar said, "I do not see it as a bargain game. Whatever is happening between them is quite serious one."
The former Union minister expressed his disapproval of imposition of President's rule in Maharashtra, as suggested by a senior BJP leader, if there is no government in place by November 9 when the term of the current assembly ends.
"I do not think President's rule should be the option. Those who have got mandate and numbers should come forward and form the government. Maharashtra is facing the problem of excess rainfall, which should be addressed at the earliest," Pawar, a Rajya Sabha MP, said.
Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut had earlier said his party has support of some "175 MLAs". Asked whether Raut has included NCP MLAs among them, Pawar sarcastically said, "I have not spoken to the Sena leadership. May be a larger section in BJP has extended support to Raut."
The former defence minister declined to attach any political motive behind his multiple meetings with Raut post election results.
"Raut is my fellow colleague in the Rajya Sabha; hence he had come to meet me. If there is any political discussion to be held, it will be with party chief Uddhav Thackeray and no one else," said the NCP chief.
Fadnavis, who officially met Shah to seek central relief for farmers hit by unseasonal rains, later said the new government will be formed "soon", but did not mention if the Shiv Sena will be a part of the new dispensation.
"There is need to form the government in Maharashtra at the earliest... I am sure, I am confident that the government will be formed," Fadnavis told reporters after the meeting with Shah.
The first BJP chief minister of the state, also separately called on Union minister and senior BJP leader Nitin Gadkari.
Another meeting took place in Mumbai, where senior Raut, who has been vociferously articulating the party's demand for sharing the chief minister's post, called on Governor B S Koshyari.
The Sena is not creating any hurdles in formation of a government in the state, Raut said after meeting the governor.
Whoever enjoys majority should be allowed to form government, said Raut.
"We informed the governor that the Shiv Sena is not responsible for the current political situation in the state over formation of new government," he said.
Raut, who is also executive editor of Sena mouthpiece 'Saamana', said, "The governor informed us that there is some time for government formation in Maharashtra. He said any political party (which commands majority) can come forward and stake claim (to form government)."
The meetings came at a time when the BJP and the Shiv Sena are engaged in a bitter tug-of-war over the latter's demand for equal distribution of portfolios and sharing the chief minister's post. The BJP has rejected the Sena's demand for sharing the chief minister's post for 2.5 years each.
In the October 21 polls to the 288-member Assembly, the BJP won 105 seats followed by the Shiv Sena 56, the NCP 54 and the Congress 44. The majority mark is 145.
Meanwhile, a Marathi daily, widely seen as inclined towards the RSS, on Monday likened Raut to 'Betaal', the mythological ghost known for challenging King Vikramaditya with his witty riddles.
Coming down heavily on Raut, 'Tarun Bharat', the Nagpur-based publication believed to be close to the Sangh and the BJP, said he was hurting the chances of the saffron alliance to come to power in Maharashtra.
"Late Balasaheb Thackeray spent his entire life for wresting power from Congress and NCP. But this 'Betaal' is trying hard to shatter his dreams," the editorial said.
In a related development, the Sena said the intricacies of government formation in Maharashtra should not push rain-hit farmers towards existential crisis and demanded that they be provided relief package of about Rs 30,000 crore.
Farmers in the state need to be saved at any cost, it said in an editorial in party mouthpiece 'Saamana', while terming as inadequate the Rs 10,000 crore aid announced by the state government for crop damage due to unseasonal rains.
Raut on Monday tweeted a photo of him with party chief Uddhav Thackeray along with a message, saying "journey is enjoyable before reaching the goal".
The Rajya Sabha member, whose party espouses the cause of 'Marathi Manoos', posted the message in Hindi on his twitter handle. The post reads: "Lakshya tak pahunchne se pahle safar me mazaa aataa hai."
Raut in the post also greeted his followers with the slogan "Jai Hind", even as the party has since long been insisting on using the salutation- "Jai Maharashtra".
A BJP minister in the state said some of his party leaders are willing for a re-election in the state. The BJP leaders expressed this view during a review meeting held in Dhule district on Sunday, Jaykumar Rawal said.
Independent MLA Ravi Rana, who has extended support to the BJP in Maharashtra, claimed that "some 25 MLAs" of the Shiv Sena were in touch with him over formation of the next government.
He dubbed the Sena as "very arrogant" and claimed the Uddhav Thackeray-led party will split and nearly two dozen MLAs will join the BJP if Fadnavis forms the next government without its saffron ally.
Rana, along with his wife and Lok Sabha member Navneet Kaur Rana, separately met Koshyari here.
"There are 25 MLAs of the Shiv Sena who are in touch with me for government formation. If Fadnavis forms a government without the Shiv Sena, in the next two months there will be a split in the Sena and 25 MLAs would join the party," he claimed.