NEW DELHI: Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar’s decision not to contest the Lok Sabha elections has surprised his friends and foes in politics, but sources said that a "free" Pawar could damage the BJP more than if he was bound by the parameters of one parliamentary seat.

Pawar, who has positioned himself as the grand patriarch of opposition unity, is expected now to campaign across the country, even as he works to forge new coalitions and strengthen old ones. For the BJP too Pawar poses more of a threat in Maharashtra than the Congress, with Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis rushing in to put a spin on the NCP leader's decision not to contest the polls from Madha. He said it was a sign that the winds were blowing the BJP way, a statement ridiculed by NCP sources.

Pawar, who has not lost a single election in a parliamentary career spanning over 50 years, has not withdrawn from the contest from fear of defeat or the BJP, but because he has come under pressure from members of his own family. His great-nephew Parth Pawar is keen to contest the parliamentary polls from Maval in Pune district. As well as age, as he is 78 years old.

Pawar does not want a third member of his family to be in the Lok Sabha, sensing this would not go down well among the people. Currently, his daughter Supriya Sule represents the Baramati seat in the Lok Sabha and he himself is a Rajya Sabha member. In fact, he had virtually announced retirement plans from elective politics in 2014 when he became a MP in the Upper House.

But will his decision not to contest the Madha seat be a setback for him and his party? Opposition leaders do not think so. This is because Pawar, always a man for all seasons, is the star campaigner, the main strategist of the NCP-Congress combine, and the principal hurdle in the BJP's attempt to capture Maharashtra after the taming of its ally the Shiv Sena.

Pawar cannot afford to prolong the stalemate on who should be his party's nominee for the Madha seat, or how many members of his family will contest the Lok Sabha elections. His nephew and former deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar is keen to field his son Parth as the NCP candidate from Maval, but another great-nephew Rohit Pawar wants Sharad Pawar to contest the Madha seat. In fact, he made an emotive appeal to Sharad Pawar to reconsider his decision.

But these developments may not influence the polls in Maharashtra next month, and at best remain at the level of family differences so far as the NCP is concerned. The party wants Pawar to campaign, and that he will.

The battle lines between the BJP-Shiv Sena combine and the Congress-NCP have already been drawn. The Prakash Ambedkar led Bahujan Vanchit Aghadi is all set to go solo, which may help the BJP led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah as it aims to cut into the Congress-NCP's Dalit and Muslim vote banks.

Pawar plans to damage the BJP through the other Thackeray brother, MNS chief Raj Thackeray. As well as through passive Shiv Sainiks, who are opposed to an alliance with the BJP and aren't very sure whether this will continue into the Assembly polls expected in October this year. Pawar has a good relationship with the Shiv Sena, as indeed with most political parties.