After former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991, the names of Pranab Mukherjee, Sharad Pawar and PV Narasimha Rao were considered by the Congress as the likely replacements. It was Mr Rao who eventually won the race, and he became the country's prime minister after his party cornered the largest number of seats in the Lok Sabha. Mr Pawar, then only 51, was appointed the defence minister.

Six years later, as a power struggle erupted in the Congress, the Maratha strongman from Baramati challenged Sitaram Kesri, 'Chacha' to his followers, for the party president's post. Mr Kesri won, inflicting on his rival a humiliating defeat. 

In 1998, the Congress suffered a crushing defeat in the Lok Sabha polls. Following a coup by a section of Congressmen, Mr Kesri was ousted from the Congress president's post, and replaced by Sonia Gandhi. Sensing a blow to his chances of taking over the party's leadership, Mr Pawar, working in tandem with PA Sangma and Tariq Anwar, raked up the issue of Mrs Gandhi's foreign origins. In a masterstroke, she resigned from the Congress president's post a few months later, spawning pleas from a great majority of the party workers for the withdrawal of her letter. 

Mr Pawar, Mr Sangma and Mr Anwar were expelled from the Congress on May 20, 1999. Five days later, they formed the Nationalist Congress Party, or the NCP. In assembly elections held in Maharashtra a few months later, a fractured mandate meant that the NCP had to swallow its pride to do business with the Congress. The two parties came together to install a coalition government in the state.

The relationship was extended to the Centre in 2004, after the BJP was handed a shock defeat in the Lok Sabha polls. Mr Pawar's party became a part of the United Progressive Alliance, or the UPA, and has remained a part of the Congress-led grouping since then. 

The NCP leader, it is said, has friends in all parties. And he leverages his association with leaders of various political hues to his advantage. In 2004, he reportedly held talks with former BJP general secretary, the late Pramod Mahajan, to explore the possibility of a deal between the two parties. The talks had to be terminated after the Shiv Sena, an old NDA partner, protested.

More recently, Mr Pawar sent alarm bells ringing in the Congress after he declared that Narendra Modi, the BJP's presumptive prime minister, could not be held responsible for the 2002 Gujarat riots as a Supreme Court-monitored probe had given him a clean chit. He also created a flutter in January by holding a hush-hush meeting with Mr Modi in the capital. The NCP leader first denied, but later admitted that he had met the BJP leader.

Having won seven Lok Sabha terms, Mr Pawar has now decided to shift to the Rajya Sabha. He is among the politicians who have enjoyed a long political innings. He first contested an election in 1967, when he was elected to the Maharashtra assembly on a Congress ticket. He was drafted into the party by his mentor, the late YV Chavan.

He has been the chief minister of Maharashtra four times. His long stint in politics saw him building very strong contacts with the corporate world. He is also a keen lover of cricket, and was the chairman of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, or the BCCI, during the period 2005-08. He was elected as the President of the International Cricket Council (ICC) in 2010.

The NCP leader's daughter, Supriya Sule is now the MP from Baramati, while his nephew Ajit Pawar is the deputy chief minister of Maharashtra. There are fears that the party will hurtle into a bitter succession war after the union agriculture minister decides to call it a day.

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