Is the Congress seriously considering breaking off with Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party and going it alone in Maharashtra, along the lines of a similar exercise in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh?
Highly-placed sources state that there is a virtual revolt in the Congress in Maharashtra with senior leaders advocating that the party should fight alone and reclaim its lost space.
So much so that the issue figured in the meeting held on Wednesday night where state Chief Minister Ashok Chavan told Congress President Sonia Gandhi that the party should contest alone. He is reported to have conveyed to her that the decision would mean the fall of the NCP-Congress government and a fresh election or the alignment of Pawar with Shiv Sena and the BJP and either situation, he said is to the Congress advantage.
This line of thinking is being backed and supported by former Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, Pradesh Congress Committee President Manikrao Thakre, minister of state in the PMO Prithviraj Chavan and a host of other leaders and workers of the party.
Sources say that loyalists in the party have piled on huge pressure and even A K Antony, who is in charge of Maharashtra, is learnt to be seriously worried at the evolving situation in the state where the bitterness between the Congress and the NCP has gone down right till the grass root. But on the other hand, there is also the fear of losing the state government.
While Pawar has been doing some hard bargaining with the Congress -- the latest being his demand that out of the 26 seats in the Congress kitty, four should be given to the Samajwadi Party and the Republican Party of India, bringing the Congress on par with the NCP at 22 seats each -- what has worsened the situation is the imposition of President's rule in Meghalaya.
NCP leader Purno Sangma has been screaming blue murder. He said his party chief
had opposed President's rule in the meeting of the Union cabinet but nobody else supported him. He said that he would approach Third Front parties to seek a joint front to protest against what has happened in Meghalaya.
Sangma also protested the Congress decision not to give a ticket to Tariq Anwar in Bihar. Though Congress leaders say it is not correct since the process is still on in Bihar and no tickets have been firmed up.
Congress leaders assert that the repeated statements of Pawar about wanting to become the prime minister and about the Third Front option being open, do not send a signal of unity and cohesion and point to the fact that post-election he would be the first to dump the Congress and join the Third Front bandwagon.
A section of the leadership believes that Pawar would be considerably weakened if the alliance in Maharashtra does not take place and if the Congress is in a position to form the government post-election, Pawar would be ready to rejoin the UPA.
At the moment, the Congress has 13 seats in Maharashtra and the assessment is that it cannot add to that tally even with an alliance. So the party would have little to lose if it went alone.
A senior leader said that in the last 10 years, the Congress symbol has disappeared from 50 per cent of the constituencies in Maharashtra and if the downslide continues like this, Pawar would be contesting more assembly seats than the Congress, making them the junior partner even in a state like Maharashtra.
But leaders concede that it is a major decision for the leadership to take and Sonia Gandhi alone would take such a decision. They said the leadership would have to be prepared to take the criticism that the UPA was falling apart and it would mean 'sacrificing the state
government' but outweighed against that is a chance to revive the Congress and put it back on its feet.
All eyes are now on Maharashtra. In this season of break-ups and separations, will Maharashtra be the next to be hit or will Sonia Gandhi opt for status quo?