As the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) enters its 16th year, the future of the party appears bleak after the drubbing it suffered in the recent Lok Sabha election.
The NCP, which contested in alliance with the Congress party, managed to win just four seats. Among the winning candidates was Supriya Sule, daughter of the party chief Sharad Pawar.
Pawar set up his outfit in May 1999, after he was expelled from the Congress for raising the issue of Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin. His supporters advised him to create a regional party along the lines of the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh, aiming to capture a substantial number of the 288 assembly seats as well as the 48 Lok Sabha seats from the state.
The game plan was that if the party got about 35 MPs, Pawar could stake a claim for the prime ministership in the event of a secular coalition emerging at the Centre. A strong anti-Congress platform may have secured a majority in the state assembly too.
"When I suggested the strategy to Pawar saheb he appeared to be interested. But, I was shocked when he joined hands with Sonia Gandhi, who he had opposed for her foreign origins," said a source close to the NCP boss. For short-term gains, he conveniently destroyed the very reason for the party's separate existence.
Now all eyes are on the forthcoming assembly elections, due in October.
The party, which has had a strong base in Western Maharashtra is being challenged by farmers' leader Raju Shetty, who has built up a big following in Kolhapur, Ichalkaranji and neighbouring areas and Pawar has not been able to counter Shetty yet.
Shetty, who has aligned with the BJP-led NDA, has successfully taken up the issues of cane pricing and the democratisation of sugar factories in the cooperative sector.
Separately, in Kolhapur, NCP rebel Sadashivrao Mandlik conducted a highly acerbic campaign targeting Pawar in the 2009 polls that showed the NCP leader is vulnerable to personal attacks.
Last year, Pawar appointed Bhaskar Jadhav, who defected from the Shiv Sena, as the party's state unit president, leading many to ask whether there were no worthwhile leaders within the NCP to lead the party.
Also within the party, Pawar's nephew Ajitdada, who is deputy chief minister, has emerged as a power centre in his own right. While Pawar groomed him to be his successor, he seems to have had a change of heart in the past few years when he inducted his daughter. Sule may not have the kind of political base as Ajit, but she has emerged as a power centre and this has become a bother for Ajit.
In addition, some of its leaders face serious charges of corruption.
That Pawar is being projected by the NCP as the chief ministerial candidate of the Congress-NCP alliance is a measure of the party's desperation.
At 73, chief ministership is hardly what the Maratha strongman will be looking for. He has held the position in the past. Besides, the Congress would not be inclined to accept an NCP nominee as CM.