Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government scored significant legislative, political and ideological victories in getting the opposition-dominated Rajya Sabha nod to two key bills in the space of about four days. On both the occasions, it brought to fore ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s political management skill and highlighted the persisting disunity and drift in the opposition camp post-parliamentary elections. In pushing one bill criminalising the instant triple talaq bill and another amending the Right to Information, the BJP demonstrated its success in enlisting the support of a clutch of key regional parties which are neither with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, nor with the opposition non-United Progressive Alliance, and busted the aura of invincibility of the opposition parties in the upper House where the bill against triple talaq was thwarted twice during Modi government’s first five-year tenure from 2014. Both the bills were passed by the Lok Sabha where the BJP alone has a commanding majority. The real political drama had unfolded in the Rajya Sabha, where the opposition has numerical superiority.
The most important achievement of the Modi government was the smooth passage of the bill against the practice of instant triple talaq known as The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill which makes talaq-e-biddat void and criminalises it as a bailable cognisable offence with a punishment of up to three years in jail for the husband. The parliamentary stamp of approval for the bill came close to two years after the Supreme Court had struck down the instant triple talaq as un-Islamic, arbitrary and not an integral part of religious practice.
The bill against instant triple talaq has important political and ideological ramifications. The bill’s passage in the Rajya Sabha was facilitated by walk-outs and absence of several lawmakers belonging to opposition parties and key regional parties which are not aligned to either BJP-led National Democratic Alliance or to the Congress-headed United Progressive Alliance.
Even though Janata Dal (U), a key BJP ally in Bihar, opposed the bill and staged a walkout, its absence in the voting on the bill and similar acts by opposition and alliance-neutral parties helped the bill’s passage by bringing down the negative votes. The voting in favour of the bill by lawmakers of the Biju Janata Dal, which is not part of NDA or UPA, was an additional positive gain for the BJP. Even four Congress lawmakers and opposition Nationalist Congress Party Chief Sharad Pawar and his close aide Praful Patel were absent from the Rajya Sabha. There were absentees from AIADMK, Telangana Rashtra Samiti, Bahujan Samaj Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal, Telugu Desam Party and YSR Congress Party. This is a far cry from the past when all other opposition parties had joined hands with the Congress to resist the bill for more than two years. The political signal from absence voting by parties even from states like Uttar Pradesh (BSP and Samajwadi Party), Bihar (Janata Dal-U) and Telangana (TRS), which have a sizable Muslim population, indicates they are not wary of helping the BJP government.
On the ideological front, the bill against instant triple talaq moves the BJP a step closer to its larger quest for a uniform civil code against the Muslim personal law. Modi had invested considerable political capital in the campaign against instant triple talaq ever since he became prime minister in May 2014 by repeatedly projecting it as an issue of gender justice in view of the sufferings by Muslim women. Modi’s critics, of course, say it is also a way of polarising Muslim voters.
No less important was the other victory on the RTI Amendment Bill in the Rajya Sabha on July 22, when the saffron party managed to secure the support of non-NDA and non-UPA parties, to put together a majority to ensure defeat of the opposition-sponsored motion to send the Amendment bill to a parliamentary select committee to change the Right to Information Act. The final passage of the RTI Amendment Bill 2019 in the Rajya Sabha with just voice vote and without a division vote, came after the anticipated test of parliamentary strength fizzled out with the opposition staging a walk-out after the head-count clearly favoured the BJP and its allies.
What was disconcerting for the Congress on the RTI Amendment Bill was that their disunity was on show even after a meeting of opposition parties convened by Sonia Gandhi the previous day, decided on a common floor strategy. The four lawmakers of BSP were absent in the Rajya Sabha when the opposition motion to refer the bill to the select committee was put to vote, while the four members of NCP did not join the debate. According to sources in the Congress, four of its lawmakers also did not take part in the voting.
For the Congress Party, amendments in the RTI Act is galling as the transparency law was enacted in 2005, a year after the party-led UPA had come to power and was a showpiece project of UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi. The amendments drew strident criticism from Sonia who accused the government of “totally subverting” the transparency law.
The amendments to the RTI Act abolish granting to information commissioners the status equivalent to the chief election commissioner and Supreme Court judges, and also empowers the government to fix the salaries and tenures of the information commissioners.
The disarray in the opposition also came out on July 17 when the Modi government succeeded in securing opposition votes in the Lok Sabha, when All India Majlis-e-Ittejadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) lawmaker Asaduddin Owaisi insisted on a division vote on a bill aimed at giving more powers to the anti-terror body, National Investigation Agency (NIA), including to probe terror attacks on Indians and Indian assets abroad.
Owaisi’s move surprised the entire opposition which had been critical of the NIA Amendment bill. Usually, a government with clear majority does not seek a division vote on a bill moved by it and prefers voice vote. But Owaisi demanded division vote even though the Bill would have been approved by voice vote given the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance’s far superior parliamentary arithmetic. Quickly seizing an opportunity to send a political statement, Home Minister Amit Shah accepted Owaisi’s demand and said the country should know who supported and who opposed the anti-terror measure. Only six lawmakers belonging to the AIMIM and the Left voted against it and the rest all voted in its favour.
None of the major opposition parties, after having faced the rout in parliamentary elections, wanted to be seen as opposing a law aimed at strengthening national security, a plank which was used to the full by the BJP in its landslide victory in this year’s national elections. The opinion in the Congress was split on the issue of supporting the bill, as a section felt such a move would send a wrong signal to the minority community given its concerns over the NIA Act, and might harm the party in a state like Kerala, now ruled by the Left Democratic Front led by the CPI(M), where it is trying to regain power in fresh assembly polls. But the view that ultimately prevailed in the Congress is that the NIA Act was after all the brainchild of the party-led government headed by Manmohan Singh in 2008 and should not be seen as resisting the amendments to give it more teeth to the law.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for The Daily Star.