Kharge's Bhagirathan tasks

Congress may still be the largest piece in the mosaic, but not the predominant one

Is the Congress finally biting the bullet? After last week’s working committee confab in Hyderabad, general secretary K.C. Venugopal said the 2024 polls will be “a do-or-die fight.”

Not a happy phrase, I say. Alfred Tennyson used it while describing how the Light Brigade’s brave 600 rode into the jaws of ghastly death in the Crimean war. Looks like the Congress is biting the cannon shell.

Venugopal might not have had any such poetic or warlike association in mind. At the most, he would have been remembering a man of peace who popularised the phrase in India’s political rhetoric. Mahatma Gandhi, if you remember, had given out two calls from the Gowalia Tank (now August Kranti) Maidan in Mumbai in August 1942. He exhorted Indians to “do or die”, and the British to “quit India”. Hope the Congress’s current allies don’t mix up the two and quit INDIA.

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

For most of them, the 2024 round will be another of those several elections in which they tie up with one or another party or go it alone. Most of them have done it time and again, winning or losing, or laying waste their fiefs. They have their pockets of political sway in one corner of India or another, and can survive to fight another day even if they lose the 2024 Lok Sabha round.

Not so with the Congress. They have always fought their elections alone at the national level, and with or without allies at the local level. But they have never been part of a national-level pre-poll coalition in which they are just another piece in the mosaic.

This time they are joining a large mosaic of parties, many of them their rivals in their turfs, if not enemies. The Congress may still be the largest piece in the mosaic, but not the predominant piece as it has always tried to be when attempting coalitions. For Congressmen, therefore, this is a never-before election.

Even a good show by the party in the coming assembly round in five states is no guarantee for a stellar show in next year’s Lok Sabha round. Look at what happened in 2018-19. The Congress had won the 2018 winter round to the assemblies of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, but could win just three of the 65 Lok Sabha seats that the three states had in the summer of 2019.

For all you know, the party may not even get to contest all those 65 seats this summer. It has ambitious allies in INDIA, who may ask for slices of the pie that the Congress is baking. The Aam Aadmi Party is planning to contest all the assembly seats in Madhya Pradesh, may deny Lok Sabha seats to the Congress in Delhi and, who knows?—it may ask the Congress to be a puny partner in Punjab.

Therein lies a double whammy for the Congress. One, it has to more than double or triple its seats in the next Lok Sabha if it is serious about denying the treasury benches to the BJP. Two, those double or triple number of seats will have to be won from half or even less than half of the constituencies which it contested in the last round. Last time the party contested in 421 seats and won 52. This time, the field will be smaller, the yield will have to be larger. No wonder Venugopal said “do or die”.

No need to lose heart, Congressmen! Robert Burns also used the phrase ‘do or die’ in a poem to describe how Robert ‘Spider’ Bruce rode to victory in Bannockburn. Bruce is said to have failed six times, and won the seventh. You are hoping to ‘do’ in the third round.

Don’t like the Bruce imagery? Too many battles and too British? How about Bhagiratha, for perseverance? Verily from Bharat.