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A few days before Holi, the colour that Mamata Banerjee has put on her face is not particularly appealing. What must be especially irksome to her is the fact that for once she cannot blame anyone else for her embarrassment. It was her choice to go on to the national stage in Delhi when she had no reason to do so. Ms Banerjee can draw consolation from history: no Bengali politician, since the passing of Chittaranjan Das, has ever enjoyed a position of influence in national politics. Subhas Chandra Bose tried valiantly but was completely out manoeuvred by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Atulya Ghosh played at being king-maker till he was eclipsed by Indira Gandhi. Siddhartha Sankar Ray had pretensions but was nothing more than a courtier. Jyoti Basu, at a given conjuncture, had an acceptability in national politics but, much to his dismay, did not get the required permission from his party. Ms Banerjee’s failure to make a mark in national politics is a part of this long list of Bengalis who tried but did not succeed. What should be recalled is that this attempt to go piggyback on Anna Hazare is not the first time that she has tried to be a player on the national stage.

Her first time was when she fancied herself as a key decision-maker in the choice of the president of India. This proved to be nothing more than an illusion as she found herself to be out of her depth. She made a second attempt when she tried to set up a third front, but found herself isolated. Her third try saw her addressing rows of empty chairs in the Ramlila Maidan in Delhi. This raises a question that goes beyond the failures of Mamata Banerjee: are Bengalis incapable of handling situations where a sense of politics really counts? Many Bengali politicians, including Ms Banerjee, have proved themselves to be very adept at using local issues and grievances at the provincial level. But on the national stage, they find themselves at a loss to find issues and to formulate a programme that has a nation-wide relevance and appeal. Bengal politicians are powerful swimmers in the shallow waters of local intrigue. They are swept aside when they venture into deeper and more powerful currents. Gandhi came from the backwaters of Gujarat but he knew the pulse of the Indian people and thus refashioned Indian politics in his time. Bengal politicians only know their own ponds.