Shortly after the Supreme Court struck down the practice of instant triple talaq as illegal and unconstitutional on Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed the judgement as historic, saying it granted equality to Muslim women and was a powerful tool for women’s empowerment.

Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah, too, called the verdict a victory for Muslim women and their right to live with dignity. “It is the beginning of a new era for the Muslim women... the BJP welcomes the rights given to the Muslim women and sees it as a step forward towards a new India,” he said.

Tuesday’s verdict came 18 months after a group of Muslim women and rights organisations petitioned the Supreme Court against triple talaq – a custom in which a Muslim man can divorce his wife by uttering the word talaq three times at one go. In October, the BJP-led government at the Centre filed an affidavit in the top court asking that it do away with the practice.

As the BJP leadership lost no time in taking credit for raising this issue of gender justice, the response from the Congress was muted in comparison – with no word from party president Sonia Gandhi. It was left to Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala to articulate the party’s official position on the apex court’s judgement. Surjewala said it was an affirmation of the rights of women and “provides relief to them against being subjected to discrimination by a practice that had been perverted over the years”. At the same time, he made it a point to underline the fact that the Supreme Court had upheld the protection of the religious personal laws of communities under Article 25 of the Constitution.

Rahul Gandhi, whose silence was beginning to attract attention, finally tweeted in the evening:

Congress in a bind

Rahul Gandhi’s much delayed response and Sonia Gandhi’s silence was telling. The Congress chief is usually prompt in extending support to any progressive legislation or policy dealing with women’s empowerment. Her failure to respond basically reflects the party’s dilemma on this subject.

The Congress was unable to oppose the campaign against triple talaq given its implications for gender justice. On the other hand, it could not support it wholeheartedly for fear of alienating the minority community.

Even when the BJP made triple talaq part of its campaign for the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections in February-March, the Congress refused to take a clear position on the practice. The line trotted out by Congress spokespersons was that the party has always favoured women’s empowerment, even as they refrained from commenting on triple talaq, saying the matter was sub-judice. At the same time, the party said that changes in personal laws should be made only after consulting members of the concerned community.

Many in the Congress feel that with the Supreme Court having given its verdict, the party’s leaders should have moved quickly to ensure that the BJP did not run away with the credit for it. A party functionary, who did not wish to be identified, said the party president should have put out a formal statement hailing the court for a progressive verdict and members of the Muslim community who had supported the ban on triple talaq.

Explaining the party’s muted response, a Congress Muslim leader who supports the triple talaq ban explained: “The trouble is that the Congress as well as the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal have used the Muslim clergy to woo the minorities. The apex court verdict will weaken the role of religious leaders and that is not good news for these political parties.”

BJP makes the most of it

In contrast to the Congress, the BJP grabbed the opportunity to project itself as a champion of women’s rights, which it believes will not only show the BJP leadership in a good light but also help the party woo Muslim women. The BJP had earlier claimed that impressed with Modi’s position on triple talaq, a sizeable section of Muslim women had voted for it in the polls in Uttar Pradesh, where the party emerged victorious with a huge majority.

Having decried the practice of triple talaq in his campaign speeches, Modi spoke up for Muslim women as recently as Independence Day. “I pay my respects to those women who had to lead miserable lives due to triple talaq and then started a movement which created an environment in the whole nation against the practice,” he said in his address to the nation last week.

It is clear the BJP picked on a politically correct matter pertaining to gender justice and women’s rights that its political rivals could not oppose. But many of these rivals claim the saffron party’s real objective in supporting the ban on triple talaq is to show the minority community in a poor light. They say this would result in further polarisation and Hindu consolidation. At the same time, it would send out a reassuring message to the BJP’s support base that it is not deviating from the core agenda of its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which includes the introduction of a Uniform Civil Code – a common set of laws governing marriage, divorce, succession and adoption that would replace various religious personal laws.

“Modi and Shah are basically telling their supporters that they are very much on the job… that their decision to focus on triple talaq is the first step towards the enactment of a Uniform Civil Code,” said a Congress leader.