MUMBAI: On the eve of the counting of votes in the Maharashtra assembly elections Sunday, hectic politicking was underway over the prospects of various parties, possible alliances and speculation over the next chief minister.
With the pre-election scenario marked by the unprecedented break-up of the state's two major alliances - the BJP-Shiv Sena and the Congress-NCP groupings - it created a situation where all the five major political parties, including Raj Thackeray's Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, contested independently. Thus there are nearly a dozen hopefuls for the chief ministership.
The latest post-election surveys point to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) emerging as the single largest party in the 288-member assembly with over 100 seats, though earlier exit polls indicated the party could secure an independent majority.
The Shiv Sena may come out as the second largest political force followed by the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party.
Incidentally, both the Congress and the NCP have trashed all surveys and exit poll predictions, with a NCP spokesperson even claiming that the party was hopeful of an independent majority.
The predictions notwithstanding, there are many hopefuls from all the five major parties who are all playing around with various post-results scenarios.
From the Congress, there is former chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, though his recent off-the-record revelations on the eve of the Oct 15 election may have severely damaged the party's prospects.
Also from the Congress, former chief minister Narayan Rane as well as party leader Patangrao Kadam are strong contenders, besides two other former chief ministers Ashok Chavan and Sushilkumar Shinde though their image took a battering after Prithviraj Chavan's interview.
The NCP's Ajit Pawar is another strong contender though, again, he could be a victim of Chavan's interview, besides senior party colleagues like R. R. Patil and Sunil Tatkare.
Both former partners of 25 years standing, the BJP and Shiv Sena exude confidence of forming the next government after the results are declared.
Despite the month-long bitterness during campaigning, both appeared to be softening their tough stance against each other.
"There is no need for arguments or bitterness any more. Hearts have been broken... it is difficult to mend broken hearts. But Maharashtra needs peace and stability. Let's wait for the day of counting (of votes)," the Sena said in an editorial in the party mouthpiece 'Saamana' Saturday.
Hinting at a rapprochement, BJP's Vinod Tawde said "there are no ideological differences between the two parties".
However, Saturday evening, party spokesperson Sanjay Raut declared that the Sena would get a majority and party chief Uddhav Thackeray would be the next chief minister.
From the BJP side, the leading contender is the young leader from Nagpur, Devendra Fadnavis.
Besides, there is Leader of Opposition in Council Tawde, former leader of opposition in assembly Eknath Khadse, former state unit chief Sudhir Mungantiwar and a relatively new entrant, Pankaja Munde-Palve, daughter of late union minister Gopinath Munde, who was killed in a road accident in New Delhi last June.
Another prospective contender, union minister Nitin Gadkari virtually opted out of the race saying he was already in the central dispensation and had important projects in hand to complete.
The biggest worry in the BJP is what if it fell short of a clear majority of 145 to form the government.
In the event of it becoming the single largest party, some sections of the leadership feel they should revive their friendship with the Shiv Sena to prevent the Congress and the NCP from forming the government for a fourth consecutive term.
Former union minister and NCP leader Praful Patel tweeted that "the NCP would play a crucial role" in the formation of the next government in Maharashtra.
Tawde however tweeted: "BJP stand is clear. We will win with a full majority. Come what may, we will never join hands with NCP."