New Delhi, Jan. 4: The Congress hasn't taken Sharad Pawar's recent threat of reconsidering the alliance seriously but Nationalist Congress Party leaders appear to believe this is the ideal time to chart a new course and increase the party's political clout.
Congress leaders dismiss this as a "hollow threat", arguing that Pawar is shrewd enough not to set off on a path to political ruin.
Pawar told a meeting in Kerala a few days ago that his party would "reconsider our ties with the Congress if it continues to belittle its ally".
His aide Praful Patel, too, argued recently that Pawar deserved a bigger profile and that the NCP should ensure this by winning more seats in the next election. The Congress has declined to formally respond to these observations.
NCP sources claim that the deaths of Vilasrao Deshmukh, the Congress's tallest leader in Maharashtra, and Shiv Sena patriarch Bal Thackeray have changed the political situation in the state. Pawar, they say, has been left the undisputed "political king" of the western state.
These sources believe that the Sena is confused and the Congress rudderless, with chief minister Prithviraj Chavan having failed to emerge as a political leader despite his image as a good administrator.
Many NCP leaders feel that the party can reposition itself to play a bigger role in national politics after the 2014 general election ' a dream nurtured also by other regional parties such as the Trinamul Congress, Janata Dal (United), Samajwadi Party and the AIADMK.
The NCP knows that this cannot happen as long as it remains in the Congress-led coalition, for it now barely gets to contest about 20 of Maharashtra's 48 Lok Sabha seats. In the 2009 general election, the NCP contested 21 seats and won nine.
The Congress has so far succeeded in restricting the NCP to the role of a junior partner in the state. In the previous Assembly elections, the Congress contested 170 seats, leaving only 113 for its ally.
The Congress hopes to emerge as the biggest beneficiary of the Sena's expected decline after Thackeray's death because of its stronger presence in the Mumbai-Konkan regions. Therefore, it is not in a mood to yield any further space to the NCP, which can count only Marathwada as a stronghold.
Pawar is said to be in touch with disgruntled Congress leaders and has apparently begun exploring the possibility of contesting all the 48 Lok Sabha seats in Maharashtra.
Many Congress MLAs are unhappy because they feel the chief minister is unsympathetic to them and is hurting their political prospects. But the Congress leadership feels that Chavan has succeeded in reining the NCP in through his clampdown on corruption, and the public at large appears happy with his clean image.
The Congress high command, which is anyway peeved with Pawar for his opposition to the food security bill, believes the NCP has no choice but to stick with the Grand Old Party.
"Pawar's ambition is an open secret but he knows his limitations," a senior Congress leader told The Telegraph.
"His party is split among 20 leaders and he himself is struggling to promote his daughter Supriya Sule against the dominance of his nephew Ajit Pawar. The best option for him would be to merge the NCP with the Congress."
Many Congress leaders refuse to entertain the possibility of the NCP walking out of the coalition. They believe that the ally cannot even retain its present Lok Sabha tally of nine if it fights the next election alone.
While some Congress leaders believe that Pawar's periodic threats are a ploy to "extract his pound of flesh", others see this as his way of keeping a third-front window open.