With Pressure Tactics and Opposition Disarray, Rajya Sabha No Longer a Hurdle for BJP

Cakewalk over RTI and Triple Talaq Bill an indicator of future path for Modi government.

New Delhi: The debate over the Triple Talaq Bill was never about whether the archaic practice should go or not. It was about two contentious issues.

One, whether the government bringing in a punitive law on triple talaq set a larger precedent for the government to override the Muslim Personal Law, which enjoy a degree of autonomy in family disputes.

And two, whether such a law to criminalise Muslim men who end their marriages through triple talaq is exclusionary as there is no law for men of other religions who abandon their wives.

The opposition has been pointing out that given the government’s Hindu majoritarian biases, the law could be misused to attack Muslim identity and citizenship.

However, all of these protests against the Bill over the last two years came to naught when the opposition lay scattered in the Rajya Sabha on July 30, and let the Bill pass without giving the treasury benches a tough fight despite having the majority in the upper house. 

The government got a walkover because 56 MPs remained absent during the time of voting on the Bill, thus giving it a temporary numerical advantage. 

A tale of contrasts

The way the government went about securing the passage of the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2019, which sought to abolish triple talaq is in stark contrast to the opposition’s lackadaisical attitude towards it. 

According to various reports, Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah anointed senior leaders Bhupender Yadav, Piyush Goyal, Dharmendra Pradhan and Prahlad Joshi to ensure that the Bill had enough numbers to go through.

Also read: On Second Attempt, Triple Talaq Bill Passed in Rajya Sabha

On voting day, the task to coordinate the house was given to Kerala leader and junior external affairs minister V. Muraleedaran. 

The saffron party laid down a meticulous strategy for the Bill a week ago. It ensured that all the 78 party MPs in the upper house remained present at the time of voting. The party also timed the voting well to secure maximum majority in the house. 

“We counted everyone, assessed possible abstentions and approached them. The biggest advantage for us was the overconfidence among Opposition leaders who did not bother to ensure that every member is present,” a party leader told The Indian Express, adding that their plan was kept “under wraps till they were sure about the numbers”.

Earlier in the day, the party dealt a blow to the Congress, with one of its Rajya Sabha MPs, former Amethi royal Sanjay Singh who is also widely considered a Gandhi family loyalist, resigning from the party and switching over to BJP. His resignation was immediately accepted by the chairperson of the house, Venkaiah Naidu. The swift move by the chairperson crippled the opposition ranks further. 

Unlike the recently-passed RTI (Amendment) Bill, over which the BJP’s allies had no second thoughts, the Triple Talaq Bill presented a difficult situation for some allies which enjoy a substantial Muslim support in their states.  

Also read: Who’s Afraid of the RTI Act?

The saffron party had a strategy for them too. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and Janata Dal (United) were opposed to the Bill as they did not want to rub their Muslim electoral constituencies the wrong way. So, the saffron party brought them on board by letting them walk out from voting after voicing their opposition to the Bill, thereby reducing the strength of the house. 

The government was also in touch with the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), which is not a formal ally of the BJP but has been supporting the party in crucial discussions of Parliament. The TRS also adopted the walkout approach, swinging the balance in the government’s favour. The absence of 23 MPs from AIADMK, TRS, and JD(U) ultimately helped the government in the final voting. 

In striking contrast, the opposition was in complete disarray. As many as 56 MPs, half of whom belonged to the opposition, were absent from the house. Interestingly, the extent of the opposition’s involvement in the matter can be gauged from the fact that some of its members spoke against the Bill in the morning but were not present to vote in the evening. 

Besides the AIADMK, TRS, and JD(U) members, the 23 opposition MPs who were missing during voting were from Congress (four), Samajwadi Party (six), Bahujan Samaj Party (four), Nationalist Congress Party (two), Telugu Desam Party (two), Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (one), Communist Party of India (Marxist) (one), Rashtriya Janata Dal (one), People’s Democratic Party (two) and Trinamool Congress (one). 

Also read: Why Just Muslims, Let’s Criminalise the Abandonment of All Wives

Stalwarts like Congress’s Pratap Singh Bajwa, NCP’s Sharad Pawar and Praful Patel, all four of BSP’s MPs, including Mayawati’s close aide Satish Chandra Mishra, RJD’s Ram Jethmalani, SP’s Tanzeen Fatma (wife of Azam Khan) and Beni Prasad Verma, along with K.T.S. Tulsi, a nominated member, were among those absent. 

Trinamool Congress’s K.D. Singh was absent but expelled CPI(M) leader Ritabrata Banerjee, who is now close to the TMC, voted against the Bill – an action which effectively neutralised Singh’s absence. Many opposition leaders said that they could not make it to the house on such a crucial day because of health issues.   

With five vacancies, the Rajya Sabha’s reduced strength is 245 at present. Out of the 245, only 184 members voted. The opposition motion to refer the Triple Talaq Bill to a select committee was defeated 84-100 while the Bill was passed 99-84. 

This is how the Narendra Modi government managed to ensure the passage of the Bill despite the numbers being stacked against it. 

Many opposition leaders who had spoken against the Bill refrained from voting. For instance, TDP’s Ravindra Kumar Kanakamedala, who had actively participated in the debate, was conspicuously missing during the vote. 

Similarly, PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti voiced her opposition to the Bill on Twitter on Wednesday morning.

Yet the party’s two MPs abstained. 

Following the passage of the Bill, the opposition leaders were quick to pass the buck around. 

TMC’s Derek O’Brien and Aam Aadmi Party’s Sanjay Singh later said that the absentee MPs were responsible for the result.

“This is not floor management. It’s the not-so-invisible but most dependable allies of the BJP: the CBI and ED,” O’Brien said, hinting at the investigative sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of the missing MPs. 

Despite the fact that the CPI(M) could not ensure the presence of all its MPs, one of its leaders blamed the Congress. “As the biggest opposition party, the Congress failed to take the lead to bring the entire opposition together,” said Elamaram Kareem, CPI(M) MP in the Rajya Sabha. 

“It’s a shame that the AIADMK walked out to facilitate the passing of the triple talaq bill in Rajya Sabha,” DMK’s Kanimozhi was quoted as having said.

Opposition MPs had reportedly tried to reach out to parties like TRS, Biju Janata Dal, and YSR Congress but the effort was too little and came too late. The BJP had brought them on board at least a week before. 

The way the Triple Talaq Bill was passed in the Rajya Sabha is a story of disarray in the opposition ranks. Much of it has to do with the fact that the Congress, the mothership of the opposition, is in tatters, after having failed to find a new president after Rahul Gandhi quit the battleground. 

In the meantime, the new Bill will replace the the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986, making only Muslim men liable to three years of imprisonment while the government is yet to decide the fate of such erring husbands belonging to other religions.