Umberto Bossi's moment of absolute certainty came 15 years ago, when he realized Italy would fall apart as a country.
"I saw with utmost clarity that the north would gain independence," he says. "I realized that we were moving at a much higher speed [economically] than the rest of the country, and I knew the discrepancy would become an abyss."
Sitting at the head of the only secessionist movement to threaten Italy since it was unified in 1861, Mr. Bossi has taken that flash of realization a long way.
Last April his party, the Northern League, won more than 10 percent of the national vote, coming in fourth after the former communists of the Democratic Party of the Left (21 percent), right-wing Forza Italia (20 percent), and the formerly fascist Alleanza Nazionale (14 percent).
Voicing the frustration of northern Italians who felt they were footing the bill for the south's sluggish economy, the Northern League received 20.5 percent of the vote in the north, with a peak of 42.2 percent in the Veneto region.
The divide between the north and south is older than the country itself. The north's geographical proximity to the rest of Europe favored its industrialization even before the Piedmontese, who were northerners, set out to unify Italy. As the north underwent radical changes, the south remained an agricultural society with a feudal organization of labor and property.
While there is real resentment in the north toward what Bossi is fond of calling "the parasitic south," recent polls indicate the possibility of secession is still remote, with only 7.6 percent of Italians in favor of splitting up the country.
Political observers say, however, that Bossi's secessionist ammunition paradoxically may come from Rome. The government's failure to bring about radical reforms, including federalist ones, may turn it into Bossi's unwitting accomplice.
There's no doubt that without Bossi's leadership the league's transformation from a rowdy regional movement into a major political force would not have been as rapid. "Bossi is a shrewd political animal and an exceptionally able populist," says Ernesto Galli della Loggia, professor of contemporary history at the University of Perugia. "In typically populist fashion, he has created the impression that the league is locked in a struggle between good and evil, that the entire movement is up against a massive conspiracy."
Often seen as raucous, ill-mannered, and sometimes offensive in his tirades against the central government - earlier this month he was ordered to stand trial for insulting head of state Oscar Luigi Scalfaro - Bossi's entrance into the political scene was, by contrast, a muted one.
He had planned to become a doctor, but a conversation one evening ended up radically changing his plans. "I had just come out of lab and noticed a leaflet pinned on one of the student boards," he recalls. "It talked about federalism, which back then was like speaking Arabic."
Standing there peering at the same leaflet, Bossi says, was an old man. "He asked me what I thought about it, and I told him I was all for it." The old man turned out to be Salvatore Bruno, the leader of the Union Valdotaine, a tiny movement seeking autonomy for the northern Val D'Aosta region. The two talked awhile and exchanged phone numbers.
Says Bossi: "One day I got this phone call, and it was him. He asked me to put up these posters all over town. I refused."
The prospect of someone catching him in the act, he admits, was simply horrifying, but "I ended up with a whole stack of posters and put them up in the middle of the night so no one would see me."
It was 1979. Local leagues voicing northerners' anger against Rome's extravagance were yet to emerge. Mr. Bruno, however, had put together a small newspaper and used it to advocate greater regional autonomy within a federalist state.
"Bruno died the following year, leaving a lot of debts," Bossi says. "I started working to keep the paper going."
Bossi's election to the Chamber of Deputies as leader of the Lombard League seven years later marked the debut of the north's regional movements on the national scene. By 1991-1992, Bossi had successfully herded the litigious local leagues into a single federation, which he called the Northern League.
This September, at the end of a three-day symbolic march along the Po River, Bossi proclaimed "the sovereignty and independence" of Padania, an ill-defined region north of the river. Though only 12 percent of northerners are in favor of secession, Bossi has given the government one year to meet the league's demands for greater autonomy or face the prospect of an insurgency.
The league's fast rise in a country so suspicious of change suggests that Bossi has been a savvy politician. But many say the question he should be answering now is where does his party go from here. "He makes strategy up as he goes along," says Mr. Galli della Loggia.
Some say Bossi doesn't really need a strategy. "He has a long-term goal, which is more than most politicians in this country can say," says Carlo Pizzati, a journalist with the daily La Repubblica.
While it is true that Bossi's secessionist crusade has never been put to the test, it is also true that the intensity of his convictions, and the exasperation of the people he represents, may take him further than most suspect. Still, an independent Padania would need to be recognized by international bodies like the European Union, which so far has refused to address the league's inquiries about joining the European Monetary Union separately from Italy.
Bossi's success, analysts agree, will depend largely on the strategy his opponents adopt. "Until now, his adversaries have been absolutely inept," says Galli della Loggia. "They have to confront him head-on, proving that in fact the south constitutes the north's biggest market and that more money has been spent on infrastructure in the north than in the south."
Bossi sees things differently. "I have always viewed [politics] as a process of faith ... I have come to the conclusion that nothing ... can stand in the way of faith. I believe history will give the north its independence. And that's all I need."