Last week, the Lok Sabha (the lower house of Indian Parliament) passed a bill that criminalised the Islamic practice of Triple Talaq. Triple Talaq instantly grants a divorce to the male partner. The Minister for Law Ravi Shankar Prasad said that in 2017, 574 instant divorces had occurred. Shortly after this, the Supreme Court had made the practice illegal. Nevertheless, according to the minister, some 300 marriages fell apart under the spell of Triple Talaq. In the Lok Sabha, the bill, under which the husband could be jailed for up to 3 years, was passed with a division of 303 to 78. That means all the MPs of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) voted in favour of the bill. The Congress party walked out in protest. Not that they could have done much, considering all they have is 52 MPs.
The Triple Talaq bill is an important legal and social measure. For the BJP, the bill serves to show they are, contrary to the general perception — especially that of the secular and liberal intelligentsia and the increasingly articulate women’s rights groups — for progress across religions.
Politically, they are now in a space from where they could leverage further momentum in the direction of a uniform civil code. This is a possibility secretly dreaded by the Congress as vote bank politics which that party traditionally depended on will come unstuck at the seams. The Muslim population which counts for nearly 20 per cent of the 1.2 billion Indians too will find a uniform civil code a threat to their cohesion. India is on the cusp of social and political upheaval. The challenges are the more layered for the reason that the changes are being initiated by a Hindu right-wing majority party.
The Congress party has always been adept at making noises that may be easily mistaken for democracy, but the fact remains they are now faced with the revolt from the leadership, a unique and, I imagine, a selfless but strategic tactic that seeks to pin duties and responsibilities on the cadre of the party.
All the more reason then that the Congress, still the main Opposition party, should act like one and rally behind their leader. But, alas, there is no leader. It has been over a month since Rahul Gandhi resigned as the president, owning responsibility for the poor performance of the party in the recent general elections.
For a brief while, there were rumours that someone from outside the Gandhi-Nehru family would be elected to the post. A very articulate and intellectually gifted Shashi Tharoor was among the names floating around. Then from nowhere, as it were, a ‘decision was taken’ to appoint Priyanka Gandhi, the younger sister of Rahul Gandhi, as the president.
Under the peculiar circumstances that the Congress party finds itself in, this seemed a good idea. For the old guard in the party, Priyanka was acceptable as she is from the ‘family.’ Their loyalty then would not be masochistic; it might be even seen as honourable. Besides a Gandhi, as is the customary feudal rite, would be liable to protect their interests. They were in for a surprise. Priyanka, after what might have been interpreted initially as affirmatory silence, said last week she was not interested in the position.
Perhaps for the first time in the recent history of the hoary party (founded in 1885), the rank and file of the Congress are forced to confront a moral imperative. They must turn democratic in their leadership question in letter and spirit.
The Congress party has always been adept at making noises that may be easily mistaken for democracy, but the fact remains they are now faced with the revolt from the leadership, a unique and, I imagine, a selfless but strategic tactic that seeks to pin duties and responsibilities on the cadre of the party. For all their faults, Rahul and Priyanka are cleansing the party, or at least offering it a chance to be professionally led. And the party has no idea what to do.
Till Rahul Gandhi stepped down, the charge, led by TV personalities like Arnab Goswamy, was that he was responsible for the party’s debacle. When Rahul Gandhi resigned, he was accused of staging a drama. They were convinced that he would come back sooner than later. That did not happen. When the attention shifted to Priyanka as the next option, the detractors said they were right to assert about the feudal nature of the Congress party. Now that she has categorically declined the position, Goswamy and others will have to rethink their strategy of personally attacking the Gandhis.
But that is no consolation really to the Congress. They have to look for a leader and elect him/her fast. As of now, the proceedings in Parliament, be it in the context of the potent Triple Talaq bill, or the ones coming up, appear to be a farce. Nothing remotely resembling a strategy of resistance seems to be in place. And it is worse on the ground, as exemplified in the recent fall of the Karnataka state government where the Congress party was a partner.
This is a tough one. We have heard of a revolt of the ranks. But a revolt of the leaders? It is a unique crisis. And as unique an opportunity to rebuild the party.
C.P. Surendran is a senior journalist based in India