1 May 2024

Ladakh and Parliamentary Elections I: The Previous Season

Electoral politics around parliamentary elections in the context of Ladakh offers a unique vantage point to decode the politics of the region and to draw linkages with national politics. This essay sets the ground for analysis of the ongoing elections by examining how things unfolded during the 2019 elections. In 2019, notwithstanding the huge mandate in the favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the victory of its candidate Jamyang Tsering Namgial (JTN) in Ladakh was the climax to an election season full of surprises. 

JTN’s victory clearly was a stupendous one. The margin of victory of 10,930 votes in a four-cornered contest was huge, if one considers the fact that BJP managed a photo-finish margin of just 36 votes for Thupstan Tsewang in a similar scenario in 2014 elections. Also significant was the fact that BJP secured more than double of the total votes that the candidate of the Indian National Congress secured. Moving beyond pure numbers, the impressiveness of the verdict is also due to two other important facts: first, the BJP victory in 2014 can simply be reduced to the fact Thupstan Tsewang was a candidate who represented a towering legacy as an undisputed mass leader with an important role in the agitations leading to the creation of the Hill Council and a series of other contributions in public life spanning across several decades. Despite his brief stint as Chief Executive Councillor (tainted by disputes within the party) of Leh district, JTN was by contrast more of a novice in Ladakh’s politics at the regional level in 2019. Second, Azgar Karbalai—clearly the tallest figure of Kargil’s politics of the previous two decades also figured in the list of candidates that suffered defeat against JTN. Both the aspects led to one conclusion: BJP and JTN managed to carve out an electoral wonder. What made this wonder possible? 

The narrative of a “historic mandate” was floated in the aftermath of the verdict to project the verdict as an ideological victory. However, the outcome was more a result of tactics than ideology. In fact, JTN throughout the campaign maintained a distance from larger the ideological baggage of the BJP and Sangh Parivar and constantly refuted the claim of his association with the RSS. The BJP was from the very beginning clear about the irrelevance of an ideological agenda (offered nationally) in Ladakh’s politics – it made the contest “local”. It avoided questions of nationalism and national security, which were its main electoral planks in the aftermath of the Balakot strikes. On the other hand, the Congress was carried away by the general slogan of “Chowkidar chor he” while themes of “secularism” and “unity” figured prominently in its electoral outreach in Ladakh. While the slogan had no resonance with masses, Congress’s think-tank failed to realize that secularism in the context of Ladakh is addressed within the domain of civil-society relations (through religious organizations) and was not on the menu of electoral politics. 

At the tactical level, the BJP prioritized booth level management, crossover of willing members of the rival party, social engineering to exploit fissures within identity groups to cultivate sub-groups as a chain of support bases, and a social media blitzkrieg to shape the preference of voters in Leh. The BJP’s campaign got an early boost when it executed the en masse joining of the president of the district unit of People’s Democratic Party (PDP) Leh along with its members thus creating a de-facto merger of PDP and the BJP. Along with this early boost, the BJP also ensured a head start with clarity over its candidate. JTN was an early starter as compared with his opponents from Kargil who entered the fray quite late. 

The BJP was also helped on several counts by tactics employed by the independent candidates from Kargil. The latter were entangled in micro-level contests to establish themselves as the “unity” candidate representing the “consensus” of Kargil, thus ignoring the importance of projecting themselves as the main challenger to BJP. Further, they lacked electoral imagination in their projection as the candidate from Kargil rather than as the candidate for Ladakh. On the other hand, JTN was largely successful in maintaining a pan-Ladakh appeal. 

The BJP also used social media spaces to cultivate and exploit generational anti-incumbency. JTN projected himself as the youth leader—the automatic custodian of new aspirations and future concerns. JTN’s involvement in environmental issues reinforced his claim of concern for future generations. The popular desire to have a generational shift was also evident in the fact that Sajjad Kargili (again a young leader) came second in the race. Among the various methods employed by the BJP, the tactics of keeping the debate and issues localized in an otherwise ideologically-charged national elections, allowed the BJP to gain ground in a region dominated by minority religious communities.

Before the 2019 election, the BJP depended on the hold and rootedness of the main leader from the region to navigate the party through the sea of electoral politics. However, with the 2019 parliamentary election (which saw several national leaders campaign in Leh), it finally emerged as a political party in Ladakh capable of delivering the outcome purely on the basis of its own organizational strategies, strength and tested electoral tactics. The result of the 2019 elections and the outcomes of the Hill Council election (LAHDC Leh) that followed confirmed that BJP’s election machine had finally arrived in Ladakh. Departing from a pure reliance on local leadership and organization to a more direct involvement of the higher commands of the party (from the state and national levels) was an important component of the machine.

Unlike in 2019, however, the 2024 election comes in an altogether different context. Ladakh now, is no longer part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir and is seeing a massive popular movement for the implementation of the Sixth Schedule and statehood. These developments will test both the adaptability of BJP’s election machine and the flexibility and imagination of the Indian National Congress. The unfolding of the electoral process in the coming weeks will be an indicator not just of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the political parties but also define the broad contours of electoral politics in a new Ladakh—a separate entity from the state of Jammu and Kashmir. 

This is the first essay in a three-part series on the parliamentary elections in Ladakh. The next essay will cover the current electoral season while the final part will analyse the results.

About the Author: Muzaffar Hussain is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science, Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad.