Who says all politics is local? Mamata Banerjee, for one, seems to believe that the time has come for her to reach out to the other shores of Indian politics. She has won her battles in West Bengal, but the fighter in her cannot rest on local laurels alone. It is easy to see what prompted her to take her battles beyond Bengal. She has freed herself from her party’s alliance with the Congress, at least for now. Her aggressive wooing of the Muslim vote-bank in Bengal makes it difficult for her to return to her onetime alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party. Much of her importance in New Delhi’s politics in the coalition era has been because of her past alliances with either the Congress or the BJP. The separation from both the national parties may have made her free from some political compulsions, but it has also made her rather irrelevant in national politics. In coalition politics, the relevance of a party is all about the number of seats it has in a state legislature or in Parliament. Ms Banerjee would like to find new allies in order to regain her relevance in national politics. But she also hopes that her national campaign will help her in subsequent elections in Bengal.
Historically, though, Bengal’s politicians have rarely mattered in national politics. Big on their home stage, they turned out to be small players in New Delhi. It has been true for Bengal politicians from the time of Bidhan Chandra Roy to that of Jyoti Basu. The reason for this has much to do with the kind of politics that succeeds in Bengal but is generally discredited in New Delhi or in most other states of India. Street-fighting, often masquerading as ideological politics, is the winning stuff of Bengal’s politics. Groomed in this tradition and benefiting from it, Bengal’s politicians have generally shown a remarkable inability to master the finer points of politics and statecraft. The record of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) offers an interesting case study. It ruled Bengal for nearly 34 years, but neither its reign nor its ideology made any impact on New Delhi’s politics. Yet, the party flattered itself by claiming to have a national identity. It is too early to say what impact, if any, Ms Banerjee’s national campaign may have on New Delhi’s politics. What is obvious, though, is the fact that she will have to depend on other regional leaders such as Mulayam Singh Yadav in order to be counted in national politics. But then, Uttar Pradesh sends nearly twice as many members to Parliament as Bengal does.