The Opposition’s unity will be put to the test when the Narendra Modi government presses for passage of the triple talaq Bill in the Rajya Sabha on Tuesday. The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2017, makes triple talaq – the practice by which Muslim men divorce their wives simply by saying talaq three times in a sitting – a criminal offence punishable with up to three years in jail.
This follows the Supreme Court’s decision in August to strike down the practice as unconstitutional. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party was among the petitioners that had moved the top court against triple talaq.
On Thursday, the Bill had smooth passage in the Lok Sabha, where the government has the numbers to push through any legislation without major hiccups. The government’s task was made easier by the disarray in the Opposition camp. The Opposition parties did come together to demand that the Bill be referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Law and Justice for further scrutiny, but they gave in quietly when the government turned them down. Their objections to the Bill during the course of the discussion were, at best, weak. The Congress, while extending support to the Bill, had sought amendments, including a corpus to provide maintenance to divorced women awaiting compensation and removal of the criminality clause in the legislation. But there were few takers for these. The Trinamool Congress did not participate in the discussion even though it has been extremely vocal on the subject outside Parliament.
There is now talk that the Opposition is regrouping and will use its greater numerical strength in the Rajya Sabha to get the Bill referred to a select committee. Though regional parties such as the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Left parties have a combined strength of 60 in the 245-member Upper House, the fate of the Bill will also depend on the stand taken by the Congress, which has 57 members. A section in the party believes it should press the government to send the Bill to a parliamentary panel but a final decision is awaited.
The Opposition parties’ handling of the triple talaq Bill is a glaring example of the lack of floor coordination among them in the ongoing winter session of Parliament. Unlike previous sessions, no concerted effort has been made by Opposition leaders to sit together and chalk out a combined strategy. The Gujarat Assembly election results on December 18 – in which the Congress won 77 seats and managed to give the ruling BJP a bit of a scare – was expected to embolden the Opposition to take on the Modi government more aggressively, but that was not to be. On the other hand, the Opposition camp looks dispirited and disinterested.
Though the Opposition has the numbers in the Rajya Sabha to pin down the government, it is not making that effort. The daily morning meetings held in the office of Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, the Opposition leader in the Rajya Sabha, have been virtually discontinued. Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Sitaram Yechury, who played a key role in drawing up Opposition strategy, is no longer a member of the House. His party decided not to re-nominate him after his two-term tenure came to an end in the last session. The Samajwadi Party’s Rajya Sabha leader Ram Gopal Yadav is not seen to be making any effort in pushing for Opposition unity or mounting an attack against the government. Bahujan Samaj Party leader Satish Mishra has barely been spotted in Parliament, while party chief Mayawati resigned her seat in the last session, claiming she was not allowed to speak about atrocities against Dalits. Trinamool Congress leader Derek O’Brien, who has been a vocal member of the Opposition camp, appears to have withdrawn from the field. West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress president Mamata Banerjee was once a leading votary of Opposition unity, but she too has been silent on the subject of the triple talaq Bill. The Congress has also not initiated any move to bring the disparate parties together, giving the impression that new party president Rahul Gandhi wants to go it alone.
As a result, there has been no coordinated effort by the Opposition on any subject so far. No Opposition party joined the Congress last month when its members disrupted proceedings to demand that Prime Minister Narendra Modi apologise for his remarks against his predecessor Manmohan Singh, in which he allegedly accused Singh of conspiring with Pakistan to defeat the BJP in Gujarat. Then again, the Congress went solo when its members, led by Rahul Gandhi, protested at the Gandhi statue in Parliament House against BJP minister Anant Hegde’s statement about changing the country’s Constitution.
“The protests would have had a far greater impact if the Congress had invited other Opposition parties to join them,” said a senior Opposition leader. “This is one issue on which there is total unanimity among the Opposition parties.”
This discord is in sharp contrast to last year’s winter session when a united Opposition launched a campaign against Modi’s decision to demonetise high-value currency notes both inside and outside Parliament. This was carried forward by former Congress president Sonia Gandhi when she held a series of meetings with various Opposition parties to pick candidates for the posts of president and vice-president, which fell vacant in July and August. This show of unity remained in place till the last session, even though the Opposition was dealt a blow with the defection of Janata Dal (United) president and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. In fact, the Opposition parties came together to pin down the government on the agrarian distress in the country and on a spate of mob lynchings. They also put up a united show to press for the withdrawal of the suspension of six Congress Lok Sabha MPs who were shown the door for protesting in the well of the House.
The current confusion is not confined to the Opposition camp alone. Congress members are equally nonplussed with the way this session has turned out. While Rahul Gandhi has not made any effort to ensure that floor coordination with other Opposition parties remains in place, he has severely undermined Ghulam Nabi Azad’s position as the leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha who takes the lead in floor coordination.
When protesting Congress members disrupted proceedings in the House over Modi’s remarks about Manmohan Singh, it was Azad who arrived at a settlement with senior BJP leaders to end the stalemate. Consequently, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley made a statement in the House clarifying that nobody doubted Singh’s commitment to the nation.
However, the same day, Rahul Gandhi virtually called Jaitley a liar, spelling his name as Jaitlie in a tweet.
While BJP leaders were furious that the main Opposition party had gone back on its agreement, Congress members were equally baffled with the party president’s attack.