With most pre-poll surveys giving the Congress-NCP a clear edge, albeit with a reduced margin, the hot topic of discussion within Congress circles is about the next chief minister of Maharashtra.
As per the alliance deal, the chief minister will hail from the party that has more legislators. Which is why Sushil Kumar Shinde of the Congress is the current chief minister, while Vijaysinh-Mohite Patil of the NCP is the deputy chief minister. With the Congress contesting more seats than the NCP, chances are that the next chief minister too will be from the Congress.
At present, there are four clear frontrunners in the race. Leading the pack is incumbent Sushil Kumar Shinde. If he leads the Congress-NCP back to office, his position will be strengthened and he stands a good chance of becoming chief minister again. Moreover, should he be denied the chief minister's post, it will be difficult to find him a suitable post within the Congress or at the Centre.
Yet, given the discontent against Shinde and also the fact that his victory from the Solapur seat is by no means guaranteed, other names too are floating around. Sources say the other contenders are Patangrao Kadam and former chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh.
There is intense pressure on the Congress to select a Maratha from Western Maharashtra (Pune-Satara-Karad-Kolhapur-Solapur region) as the chief minister. Western Maharashtra is the largest region in the state and Marathas the largest and one of the most dominant castes in Maharastra. Shinde hails from Western Maharashtra, but he is not a Maratha. In contrast, Kadam and Deshmukh are all Marathas.
Besides the four, Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee president Prabha Rau too has a chance. She became president of the Congress party's state unit not too long ago and played a key role in allotting the party nominations.
Again, the Congress might decide to send a Maharashtra leader from the Centre to Mumbai. There are many Maharashtra leaders currently in Delhi: Shivraj Patil, Prithviraj Chavan and Mukul Wasnik to name a few. A dark horse could emerge from Delhi.
From the NCP, a source said two names top the list in case the party beats the Congress to second place - Padamsinh Patil and Vijaysinh Mohite-Patil.
NCP chief Sharad Pawar's nephew, Ajit Pawar, is unlikely to be made chief minister at this stage, while former deputy chief minister Chhagan Bhujbal is apparently not in the reckoning.
The Shiv Sena too faces a similar predicament. In fact, a source said that one reason Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray decided to drop out of the campaign is that he was irritated by the massive turf war raging in the Sena. The top CM contenders are Uddhav Thackeray, Raj Thackeray, Manohar Joshi and Narayan Rane. For the Sena, having to decide the next chief minister if they manage to form a government, will only compound the internecine battle.
Only the BJP is clear about its chief ministerial candidate - Gopinath Munde.