The Congress' tough talking with its ally, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (DMK), yielded results with the southern party withdrawing its threat to pull out its Ministers from the United Progressive Alliance government and conceding the Congress demand for 63 Assembly seats.

Is this a sign of things to come, given the average Congressman's discomfort with coalition politics, and party general secretary Rahul Gandhi's avowed preference for going solo in States, where the party has all but disappeared? The party's effort at going it alone has had some success in Uttar Pradesh in the general elections in 2009, but it ended in disaster in the assembly elections in Bihar last year.

It is also widely known now the Congress was divided on how to deal with the DMK, after the latter announced last Friday its intention of withdrawing its Ministers from the UPA government. One section felt it would be best to dump the DMK and rid the UPA of its 2G taint. The other, led by seniors such as Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, was of the view that, given the Congress' dependence on its coalition allies, it must work to bring the DMK back, of course, with its own self-respect intact. Through the last six and a half years, the Congress has broken with the Left Parties and the Rashtriya Janata Dal — if it now let the DMK go without an effort, this section felt the Congress would be seen as an unreliable partner.

Against this backdrop came party president Sonia Gandhi's uncharacteristic ultimatum to the DMK — confirmed by senior Congress leaders — taking everyone by surprise. But clearly, it reflected the mood in the Congress: the desire to get rid of its baggage, but tempered by the knowledge that it was not pragmatic to dump the DMK, and lose the support of the party's 18 Lok Sabha MPs.

A Congress functionary said that while Ms. Gandhi's firm line with the DMK may have sent out a general message to all allies not to mess it, he said, the party was well aware that the DMK had given in only because it found itself in a vulnerable spot, not merely because of the incumbency incurred over five years in power in Tamil Nadu, but because of the impact of the 2G spectrum scam on its poll prospects.

“There was a particular situation [in Tamil Nadu], and we were able to press our advantage there,” a party functionary said, stressing, however, that “the same template may not apply elsewhere.” The reference was to West Bengal, where negotiations for seat–sharing with the Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief and Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee have just begun.

Thus far, West Bengal's Congress chief Manas Bhuniya has publicly put in a claim for 98 constituencies in the 294-seat assembly: the TMC has offered just 58 seats, reluctant even to give the seats the Congress currently holds, such as the ones in Kolkata. The Congress was aware, party sources said, that in West Bengal, this time, unlike in Tamil Nadu, arithmetic will matter less than the overwhelming mood for change, something that places Ms. Banerjee in an advantageous position in the seat-sharing talks.

Therefore, a party functionary said, a better tack might be to strike a bargain with the TMC not to field candidates in Assam, where the ruling Congress feels it has a good chance of doing a hat trick: the TMC wants to contest more than two thirds of the seats in the State.

Pranab's advice

On Tuesday night, Mr. Pranab Mukherjee's advice to over 50 of West Bengal's Congress State and District functionaries, to demand only seats they were confident of winning, was imparted over dinner at the Constitution Club here. Mr. Mukherjee, Congress sources said, reminded them that in last year's civic polls, central leaders had left the decision on how to contest the civic polls to the state unit: the Congress fought alone and the results were disappointing. He, therefore, urged them to be “realistic” about the ground realities.

Party sources added Ms. Gandhi had issued instructions that a poll alliance with the TMC was an absolute necessity. For the Congress, the battering over the last six months has made it an imperative for the party to put its best foot forward for next month's Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Assam, Puducherry and Kerala. Clearly, now is not the time for experimentation.