24 MARCH 2016
The message in the Brussels attack
This time it is Brussels. The bomb attacks that have killed at least 31 people at the airport and a metro station in the Belgian capital demonstrate that jihadists remain a serious security threat to European societies despite a massive security crackdown since the November 2015 Paris attacks. Brussels, which hosts key European Union institutions, is the de facto capital of Europe. By striking in the city four days after Salah Abdeslam, thought to be the lone remaining perpetrator of the Paris attacks, was caught, the terrorists have sent a strong message not just to the Belgian government but to the entire European establishment. The Belgian government woke up to the terrorist threat it faces only after the Paris attacks that killed at least 130 people. Several of the attackers came from the Brussels neighbourhood of Molenbeek. Security forces had carried out a massive combing operation in the neighbourhoods and even locked down the capital city for days. But still it took more than four months for the Belgian authorities to track down and arrest Abdeslam, who was reportedly planning more attacks in Europe. What is more tragic and surprising is that the authorities still could not stop the attack. Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel’s words that “what we feared has happened”, bluntly point to the failure of the intelligence and security establishment.
The Brussels attacks also come in a broader context of global jihadists stepping up attacks on civilians around the world. The Islamic State in particular, which has claimed responsibility for the Brussels strike, has carried out a number of attacks across the world, from Paris to Ankara, in recent months. One of the reasons for these attacks in faraway locations is that the group is facing military setbacks in and around the so-called ‘caliphate’, the seat of its influence. Attacking public places and killing innocent people may appear to be sheer madness. But for groups such as the IS, there is a rationale. First, not being able to expand the territories of the ‘caliphate’, the IS wants to export terrorism to other countries so as to stay ‘relevant’ and find more recruits. Second, and more important, the IS is fighting a war against the civilisational values of the modern world. By attacking the public, it wants to create panic in free and open societies, break their social cohesion and then reap the dividends. And it is certain by now that Europe is high on the hit list of the IS because it knows that when it hits Western societies, which are generally known for democratic, secular and pluralistic values, it sets off the real panic button. For the same reasons, the challenges before Europe are also greater. To be sure, it has to raise security operations to a higher standard and strengthen cooperation among other countries in fighting terrorist groups such as the IS and al-Qaeda. But Europe should do it cautiously, without compromising on its moral values and imperilling civil liberties. But refusing to give in to the jihadists’ designs is as important as security measures in this fight — one that is not going to get over any time soon.
In search of an alternative
In unerring succession over the last five decades, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) have alternately ruled Tamil Nadu, where no national party has been in power since the Congress lost in 1967. Dislodging the party in power has been the overarching objective of other parties, and the thought of providing an alternative to the two mainstays of Tamil Nadu is only a minor theme in any election. The coming together of Vijayakant and the four-party People’s Welfare Front (PWF), which includes two regional parties and the two Left parties, to forge a third front is therefore a significant development. As the party with the third largest vote share in the State, Mr. Vijayakant’s decade-old Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) may not have really lived up to its early promise, but in tandem with the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) of Vaiko and the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), a Dalit party, it seems to be in a position to mount a semblance of a challenge to the two formidable leaders — M. Karunanidhi of the DMK and Jayalalithaa of the AIADMK. Mr. Vijayakant, who will be projected as the new front’s chief ministerial candidate, was the most sought-after political ally in the run-up to the Assembly election, with the DMK, the PWF and the BJP courting his company. The DMK went out of its way to win him over, but Mr. Vijayakant’s political instincts seem to have taught him that he should lead a front rather than join one.
Mr. Vijayakant, who floated his party in 2005, began as a lone ranger and garnered an impressive 8.5 per cent vote share in the 2006 Assembly polls, followed by an improved figure of 10.3 per cent in the 2009 Lok Sabha election. Frustrated that his vote share was not translating into seats, he tried the alliance route in 2011, joining hands successfully with the AIADMK, winning 29 out of the 41 seats his party contested. But he lost out in political terms as he could no longer project himself as an alternative. He was part of the National Democratic Alliance in the 2014 Lok Sabha poll and drew a blank. His performance as Leader of the Opposition in the last five years was largely inconsequential. The lack of a clear policy or programme for his party and his own image as an inarticulate, confused and perennially angry man, and one whose party is largely controlled by close family members, do not exactly mark him out as a leader with great potential. Yet, his presence as a challenger in the fray may have helped transform the search for an alternative from being just an ambition into a concrete idea. This summer’s vote may be a real opportunity to examine whether the voters of Tamil Nadu will be content with alternately voting in two powerful parties, or whether they would like a viable choice in the form of a combination of parties equidistant from the two main forces.