At the same time, BJP also appeared not to close the option of taking NCP's outside support in case a deal with Shiv Sena does not materialize.

Shiv Sena, which had breathed fire against BJP during the assembly poll campaign, has deputed two senior leaders for discussions with the BJP leadership, sources said.

Anil Desai, a Rajya Sabha member and Subhash Desai, another senior Sena leader, arrived in Delhi late in the night for discussions with the BJP leadership, sidelining Sanjay Raut.

Apparently with an eye on Shiv Sena, BJP deferred the visit of Home Minister Rajnath Singh who was chosen as a central observer for election of the leader of BJP Legislature Party in Mumbai. He will now go to Mumbai after Diwali as back channel talks on the possibility of getting Shiv Sena back on BJP's terms continued, party sources said.

In the midst of hectic consultations on government- formation, senior BJP leader from Maharashtra Vilas Mungantiwar gave a new twist to the leadership race by favouring Union Minister Nitin Gadkari for the post of chief minister.

That the party has not closed the doors for Shiv Sena was evident from the remarks made by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and Om Mathur, the party's election incharge for Maharashtra.

Keeping all its options open, Jaitley referred to the congratulatory telephone calls made by Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP President Amit Shah and some other leaders, saying that itself sends "signals" (of possibility of tie-up).

"We have two proposals on hand. Sena has been a natural ally, NCP has announced unconditional support...For BJP and Sena to become allies in the Maharashtra government could be a matter of course but if there is some difficulty that arises, you also have unconditional offer as far as NCP is concerned," he said.

Jaitley said there have been "not much" talks with Sena so far but emphasised that the two parties are still together in the central government and the municipal corporation in Mumbai.

"Surely, in two out of the three tiers of government we are allies the fact that we are congratulating each other itself is a signal," he said.

BJP's Maharashtra election in-charge Om Prakash Mathur also made suggestions on the similar lines and said his party would be "happy" if "natural ally" Sena comes back.

"We think the party which has been with us for years. If the natural ally which was with us returns, we will be happy. But if it doesn't, then all options are open in politics," Mathur said.

BJP has won 122 seats in the 288-member state Assembly, falling short of the majority mark by 23 seats. Sena has 63 seats while NCP has 41.

Shiv Sena has emerged as the second largest party in the assembly, bagging 63 seats. NCP has 41 seats.

Asked if he was ruling out an alliance with Sharad Pawar-led NCP, Jaitley said "nothing is ever ruled out in politics. When you are negotiating, the party has a tight lip."

When pressed further if he was saying no to NCP, he said "I am not saying yes to anyone."

BJP and Shiv Sena were caught in a battle of nerves with the former making it clear that it will not blink first.

Union Minister and former BJP chief Nitin Gadkari today met Finance Minister Arun Jaitley at the latter's residence and spent about half an hour discussing the party's strategy ahead of government-formation.

Jaitley and Gadkari are reported to have discussed the party's choices available in Maharashtra. NCP has already offered unconditional support to BJP but the saffron party has not decided on whether to accept it or not.

Sources say if Shiv Sena rides the high horse, BJP may elect its leader and form a government and prove on the floor of the House its majority with the tacit or open support of NCP.

After the meeting, Gadkari left for Nagpur to hold discussions with the RSS top brass on its options ahead. RSS is keen that the saffron forces should united but have left it to BJP to decide.

Meanwhile, the name of BJP's Maharashtra chief Devendra Fadnavis emerged as the front runner for the Chief Minister's post overcoming challenge from other veterans including Eknath Khadse and Vinod Tawde.

Meanwhile in Nagpur, Gadkari received a boisterous welcome on his reaching there from New Delhi and later a group of newly-elected party MLAs from Vidarbha region assembled outside his residence and raised slogans hailing his leadership.

When reporters asked Gadkari about Mungantiwar demanding that he should become chief minister, Gadkari refused to comment, saying he had already clarified that he did not want to return to state politics.

A good number of MLAs who had flown to Mumbai yesterday for the BJP Legislative Party meeting, which could not take place, returned to the city today and drove straight to Gadkari's house in Nagpur and raised slogans in his favour.

The development is being viewed as a show of strength to signal to the BJP leadership which is yet to name the chief minister.

Earlier in the day, Mungantiwar, former state unit BJP chief and a member of the party's core committee, told reporters in Mumbai that Gadkari should come to state politics.

"State BJP leaders feel that Nitin Gadkariji should come back to the state politics and take up the position of the CM of Maharashtra. He has a lot of administrative experience behind him which makes him an ideal candidate," he has said.

The Vidarbha region, where the statehood is a contentious issue, has overwhelmingly come out in support of BJP which won 44 seats out of 62 seats in the region.

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