New Delhi: With both sides playing hardball, uncertainty persists over a pre-poll alliance between the Congress party and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in Maharashtra, where the two have been sharing power for a decade.

Mission Mumbai: Sonia Gandhi is expected to discuss the electoral alliance with leaders on Monday. Pankaj Nangia / Bloomberg

Senior leaders from both parties maintain that a deal would likely be struck early this week as the two sides bargain over the number of seats each should contest. Filing of nominations for elections to the 288-member assembly will begin on 18 September and close on 25 September; polling is scheduled for 13 October.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her political secretary Ahmed Patel have been holding consultations on the subject with defence minister A.K. Antony, the party general secretary in charge of Maharashtra, and other senior state leaders such as Vilasrao Deshmukh and Sushil Kumar Shinde.

Gandhi is expected to discuss the electoral alliance with other state leaders on Monday when she visits Mumbai to inaugurate the renovated party headquarters. Antony will be accompanying the Congress president.

The Congress, which heads the government in Maharashtra, is insisting that the NCP, whose performance in the state in the April-May Lok Sabha elections was poor, compromise on the number of assembly seats it wants to contest. The Congress contested 166 seats and the NCP 122 in the 2004 assembly election.

The NCP isn’t ready to back down. Its leaders have warned their Congress counterparts that it would be risky for the latter to fight the state assembly election on its own.

“The difference in the vote percentage between the Congress and the NCP in the last general election was just 0.3%. That is when we contested in 21 Lok Sabha constituencies and the Congress in 26," senior NCP leader Tariq Anwar said.

Anwar, NCP president Sharad Pawar and P.A. Sangma were expelled from the Congress party in 1999 after they led a campaign, targeting Gandhi, seeking to bar persons of foreign origin from top posts. Pawar is the food and agriculture minister in the Union cabinet.

Anwar also said the margin between the Congress-NCP and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Shiv Sena alliance was very narrow in terms of votes. “It was just 3%," Anwar said.

He added: “We want to stick to the existing seat sharing formula. However, no formal decision has been taken. Both parties are still in discussions."

At least two NCP leaders and a Congress leader said both parties want to preserve the alliance. “However, both sides have prepared candidates’ list for the entire 288 seats," an NCP leader said.

In the Congress, while Deshmukh, a former Maharashtra chief minister, proposed that the party fight the election on its own, senior leader Digvijay Singh has suggested that the NCP remerge with its parent.

Shinde and chief minister Ashok Chavan are keen on continuing the alliance. Prithviraj Chavan, minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, has suggested friendly contests in some constituencies of western Maharahstra where both parties have a strong base.

Finance minister Pranab Mukherjee said: “We have an arrangement with the NCP. We are trying to work out the details."

According to Congress leaders, the party would bargain for at least 170-175 seats in view of its better than expected performance in the Lok Sabha elections. “We will have to accommodate the (six) independent MLAs who have been supporting the government and the three Shiv Sena legislators (who joined Congress earlier this month)."

Political analyst B.G. Varghese, a visiting professor at the Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think tank, sees the Congress stand as an attempt to expand its base. “You cannot expand your base if you are depending on another party. Congress seems to be encouraged by its performance in the general election. Why should they sacrifice if the grass is greener that side," he said.

The Congress, which had faced a major standoff in dividing ministerial portfolios with the NCP after the 2004 state polls, also wants to finalize a formula to distribute the ministries if the combination returns to power. In the current dispensation, the Congress and the NCP hold an equal number of ministries.

Meanwhile, an NCP leader said the emergence of a potentially formidable Third Front to contest the state polls may force the Congress to “accept the ground reality" and back down.

The Republican Left Democratic Front (RLDF), comprising 17 political parties including some former allies of the Congress, has announced that it would contest 200 of the 288 seats.

Flagging off its election campaign, the RLDF held a well-attended public rally on Saturday in Mumbai.