Politics is the game of possibilities where all stakeholders play their games to keep opponents on their toes. They use all the instruments at their disposal to prevent possible electoral tie-ups and spoil political fortunes.
According to political pundits, the ruling BJP-Shiv Sena combine in Maharashtra is planning to throw spanners to block a political scenario where the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) would come together to spoil the possibilities of the BJP-Sena combine improving or maintaining its tally in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in Maharashtra.
And it should surprise none if the ruling combine decides to rake up the scam related to a Mumbai-based top housing finance company and the aircraft deal to corner the top leadership of the NCP. The arrival of 'corporate lobbyist' Deepak Talwar to India from the UAE and the recent raking up of the housing finance company's case are being seen in political circles as an attempt to serve a signal to the NCP to watch its step while joining the anti-BJP alliance. While both the developments have links to the NCP leadership, it's almost certain that NCP chief Sharad Pawar cannot be part of the BJP alliance.
However, before baring the claws, both NCP patriarch Sharad Pawar and Prime Minister Narendra Modi tried to soft handle each other, keeping political analysts busy trying to decipher and decode the political messaging.
The Maharashtra strongman, known for his friendly ties with leaders across the party divide, praised Modi for his hard work after the Gujarat Chief Minister-led NDA's stunning victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. "Modi works hard, that is a fact. During our tenure I had a good equation with him, for professional reasons, and I know his working style. Amongst UPA partners I am the only one who has a communication line with him," Pawar said at that time.
Modi too responded in similar vein. While addressing a meeting in Baramati, hometown of Pawar, in February 2015, Modi, who had lashed out at Pawar some six months earlier, showered praises on the NCP leader, claiming that even if they are from two different parties and have two different ideologies, their aim is one - India's progress.
And come December 2018, the willy politician that Pawar is tried to open communication channels with the Gandhis. Attacking Modi for targeting the Gandhis, the Maratha strongman said the country's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru spent years in jail during the British rule while Indira Gandhi protected interests of the poor when in power. Praising Sonia Gandhi and her son and party President Rahul Gandhi, Pawar said: "People should feel proud of them as they continue to serve the poor despite the assassination of prime ministers Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi."
Meanwhile, after tough posturing on both sides, the Congress leadership in Maharashtra and the Pawar-led NCP appear to tie the political knot for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, political sources said. And the possibilities of that have unnerved the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
The crucial seat-sharing formula for the 48 Lok Sabha seats -- the second highest after Uttar Pradesh -- is "practically clinched" and would soon go for the formal nod of the top party leaders like Sharad Pawar and Congress President Rahul Gandhi.
However, the question of accommodating some key local allies is still pending and keeping everyone on tenterhooks.
It may be recalled that on the eve of the 2014 Assembly elections, the Congress-NCP, as also the BJP-Sena combine, had split and fought elections separately, resulting in multi-cornered contests in most of the 288 (Assembly) segments.
This was among the prime factors, analysts later said, which led to the Congress-NCP rout after 15-year rule in Maharashtra, a traditional Congress stronghold. The state was earlier ruled for a term by the Sena-BJP (1994-1999) and from 1999-2014 by the Congress-NCP.
In the present scenario, with a major change in political circumstances compared with 2014 when the "Modi wave" had washed out the Congress-NCP, "a pre-poll alliance is a sensible option", as a senior NCP official put it.
Though the final figures are kept under wraps, both sides claim "a win-win situation" that would give a tough fight to the BJP-Sena combine, which has yet to finalise its alliance, with the Sena stance giving the BJP a headache.
The Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh (BBM) led by Prakash Ambedkar, which has allied with the Owaisi brothers' All India Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) to present a potent Dalit-Muslim force, has demanded 12 seats for allying with the Congress-NCP, leaving the latter aghast.
Besides, the Congress-NCP are wary of the AIMIM factor, which could gnaw into their minority strongholds and indirectly benefit the BJP-Sena combine with a division in votes, said a high-ranking state NCP leader.
A senior Congress leader said in the final tally, the Congress-NCP may part with 3-4 seats from their share to accommodate the smaller parties and also ensure their victory.
There is also considerable speculation whether Maharashtra would opt for simultaneous Lok Sabha and Assembly elections -- though categorically denied by Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis -- but nobody from the BJP has commented.
Nevertheless, Maharashtra Congress President Ashok Chavan is unfazed: "We are prepared for simultaneous elections. It's up to them to decide," he said.
If this materialises, smaller parties rue it would pose fresh organisational, manpower and funding challenges for them, with the ruling combine having an upper hand.