MUMBAI: The BJP could rule Maharashtra after finishing as the single largest group in a hung house Sunday after the NCP offered unexpected "outside support" to it, leaving the runner up Shiv Sena high and dry.
There was no official response from the Bharatiya Janata Party to the NCP decision but it reduced the BJP's need to patch up with its estranged and long-time ally Shiv Sena, which it had dumped before the Oct 15 polls.
Nationalist Congress Party leader Praful Patel, a confidant of party strongman Sharad Pawar, said Maharashtra needed a stable government and so the NCP was ready to prop up a BJP government.
The dramatic announcement came just before the BJP leadership began a meeting in New Delhi to analyse its spectacular showing in Maharashtra and Haryana and amid speculation of renewed bonhomie between the BJP and the Sena.
Election officials said the BJP was set to win 119 seats in the 288-member assembly, far short of the 145 needed to secure a legislative majority.
With the NCP's expected 42 seats -- officials continued to count the millions of votes cast -- coming its way, the BJP can cross the threshold.
The Shiv Sena, which could end up with 61 seats, had earlier said that it was ready to make up with the BJP, a sentiment shared by some of its leaders, including L.K. Advani who called for a BJP-Sena rapprochement.
"I hope the BJP and Shiv Sena will come together," said Advani, one of those leaders who was not happy with the BJP decision to dump its ally of 25 long years after a row over seat sharing ahead of elections.
The Congress, which along with the NCP had ruled Maharashtra for 15 years until their alliance collapsed before this election, is expected to finish third in the state with 44 seats.
The BJP, which until now had played second fiddle to the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra assembly elections, credited the showing in the state to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's popular appeal.
"People of Maharashtra have shown faith in Modiji's agenda of good governance. We are thankful to the people," BJP leader Kirit Somaiya said.
"The second largest party (Sena) has just half of our strength."
Earlier, Maharashtra BJP leader Devendra Fadnavis told the media that while no discussions had taken place with the Sena, "if the need arises, we expect our friends to support us".
Shiv Sena leader Anil Desai said the acrimony between his party and the BJP was history.
Not anticipating a bonhomie between the BJP and NCP and thinking the BJP will seek his party's aid, Shiv Sena spokesman Sanjay Raut said: "Whatever happens, the chief minister will be from our party."
Raj Thackeray's Maharashtra Navnirman Sena cut a sorry figure in the state. It might end up with just three seats in the Maharashta legislature while independents and smaller parties could have 19 members.
Fadnavis, however, admitted that the BJP was "deeply hurt" over the manner the Sena targeted Modi and the BJP during the election campaign.
The NCP blamed the Congress for the impending rout.
"It all happened because of Chavan," NCP's Nawab Malik said, referring to former chief minister Prithviraj Chavan of the Congress.
"He had no understanding of the issues in Maharashtra, he did not take the right decisions, and he didn't act when he had to."
Chavan accepted responsibility for the Congress rout.
The NCP-Congress alliance came apart Sep 25, the same day the BJP dumped the Sena, triggering speculation that the NCP and BJP appeared to be in a secret deal.
As the BJP celebrated in Mumbai and New Delhi bursting crackers and distributing sweets, Maharashtra Congress chief Manikrao Thakre resigned.