When the winter session of Parliament came to a close on Friday without the passage of the controversial triple talaq Bill, both the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the opposition claimed victory for the outcome.

Though the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, which criminalises the practice of talaq-e-bidat or the utterance of “talaq” three times, was passed by the Lok Sabha without a hitch, the legislation could not be taken up in the Rajya Sabha where a numerically stronger opposition insisted that it should be referred to a select committee for greater scrutiny and even moved a resolution to press this demand. However, the government refused to concede to the opposition. As a result, the Bill has been effectively deferred till the budget session of Parliament.

Opposition parties maintained this to be their win as they had succeeded in isolating the BJP in the Rajya Sabha. The government, they pointed out exultantly, was unable to allow a vote on their resolution as it was hopelessly outnumbered. Not only did the opposition remain united but it also got the support of BJP’s allies and friendly parties like the Telugu Desam Party, the Biju Janata Dal and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

From Shah Bano to Saira Bano

While the opposition patted itself on the back for embarrassing the government, the BJP was not complaining. According to its internal calculations, the party had nothing to lose in this debate on triple talaq. Had the Bill been passed, the BJP would have touted it as a grand success. But the opposition’s resistance to the legislation has provided it a golden opportunity to hammer away at its political rivals, especially the Congress, for not standing up for the rights of Muslim women and for appeasing the minorities. In fact, it was for this reason that the government deliberately did not accept the opposition demand to refer the Bill to a select committee. It found it politically far more prudent to keep the Bill in abeyance.

The official reason being given is that the core purpose of the legislation would have been defeated as the opposition would have insisted on removing the clause criminalising triple talaq. However, the real motive is to keep this debate alive to enable the BJP to mount a campaign against the Congress.

“It’s fairly obvious that the BJP does not want this controversy to die down. Its real objective is not gender justice but consolidation of the Hindus,” a senior opposition leader pointed out. “The BJP wants to send out a message through this Bill that it is only their party which can contain the minorities.”

The first point of the BJP attack will be in the upcoming Karnataka assembly polls where the Congress is fighting with its back to the wall to retain its only major state in Southern India. “We are going to hit out hard at the Congress. From Shah Bano to Saira Bano – that’s going to be our slogan,” remarked a BJP minister. Over the past few months now, the BJP has already added a communal colour to its campaign against the Siddaramaiah-led Congress government in Karnataka. The stalemate over the triple talaq Bill will prove to be an additional weapon in its arsenal as the BJP takes to the streets in the coming weeks.

On the wrong foot again

While the BJP is confident that it can use this issue to its political advantage, the Congress finds itself on the wrong foot once again. Party leaders lamented that they had willy-nilly allowed the BJP to steal a march over it. Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s failure to spell out his position on triple talaq, they maintained, made matters worse as the party stands to fall between two stools once again as it seeks to reach out to the Hindus and please the minorities simultaneously. They recalled how the late Rajiv Gandhi pandered to the Muslim clergy by overturning the Shah Bano judgement that gave maintenance to divorced Muslim women and then sought to please the Hindus by opening the locks and allowing the performance of religious rites at the disputed Babri Masjid structure.

When the triple talaq issue was first raised by the BJP, the Congress did not spell out its stand, stating that it would abide by the Supreme Court order in this matter. It then welcomed the apex court ruling holding triple talaq invalid. The Congress initially again supported the triple talaq Bill in the Lok Sabha though it did have reservations about certain provisions. Subsequently, the grand old party joined hands with the other opposition parties to block a vote on the Bill in the Rajya Sabha, insisting that it be referred to a parliamentary panel.

“This was an ideal opportunity for Rahul Gandhi to stamp his authority in the party and show himself as a clear and decisive leader,” remarked a former Congress minister. “He should have given clear cogent reasons for either supporting or opposing the Bill and gone to the people with it.” In this instance, he said, Rahul Gandhi had clearly outsourced the battle to the party’s Rajya Sabha leaders, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Anand Sharma.

Shifting focus from the economy

Congress leaders are also unhappy that the discussion on the Modi government’s inability to deliver on the economic front had been pushed to the background because of the lingering debate on triple talaq. They pointed to the party’s campaign in the recent Gujarat assembly polls when the Congress successfully kept the focus on rising unemployment, agrarian distress and the faulty implementation of the Goods and Services Tax and stated that they should have persisted with the same narrative as the economic scenario is showing no signs of improving. However, in this case, the Congress had ended up conceding the initiative to the BJP.

“We have allowed the enemy to choose the venue of the battle and its weapon of attack. This should never have happened,” added a senior Congress leader.

Following the release of the latest Gross Domestic Product figures by the Central Statistics Organisation on Friday, the Congress quickly sought to return to its original political discourse. Rahul Gandhi tweeted deriding the government for the slump in economic growth, calling it the Gross Divisive Politics, while former finance minister P Chidambaram put out a statement pointing out that the low growth rates, stagnant investments and the crisis in the agriculture and the informal sectors showed that the ground reality was very different from the government’s rhetoric and tall promises.

Only time will tell if the Congress will succeed in sustaining this narrative or will it be forced to respond to the BJP’s communal card.