2 June 2024

Ladakh and Parliamentary Elections II: Trends in the Current Electoral Season

The top two finishers from the previous Lok Sabha election in Ladakh were missing from the race this time. Such has been the story of parliamentary elections in Ladakh. Jamyang Tsering Namgial (JTN) – the star Member of Parliament (MP) from the region, who rose to the fame with the “sunne ki shamata rakhiye” rebuttal (in his address on the eve of the Parliamentary legislation bifurcating the state of Jammu and Kashmir into the twin Union Territories) missed the bus when Bharatiya Janata Party, contrary to all expectations gave the ticket to Tashi Gyaltsen – the sitting Chief Executive Councillor, Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) Leh. Likewise, Sajjad Kargili – the first runner up from the previous election also had to withdraw from the electoral arena as part of the final call by the Islamic School Kargil (ISK). 

Ladakh probably had the most dramatic ticket distribution process anywhere in the country. To begin, with BJP’s denial of mandate to JTN saw him register a strong protest with the party. JTN followed the decision with a tour and outreach programme with his supporters – interestingly in Kargil district expressing his displeasure over the manner in which he was sidelined. More dramatic was the tug-of-war between the Leh and Kargil units of Indian National Congress (INC). In a unique incarnation of the I.N.D.I.A alliance spirit of unity, the district units of INC and National Conference (NC) of Kargil came together, albeit in their pursuit of the Congress’ mandate for the district president of NC – Haji Hanifa Jan. The strangeness of the demand allowed the Leh district unit of INC to secure the mandate for one of the sitting councillors of LAHDC Leh, Tsering Namgyal. While justifying the allocation of ticket to Namgyal on basis of religion, Nawang Rigzin Jora, the President of the Ladakh Territorial Congress Committee, stated – and over-stretched – the application of what clearly was an unstated norm of ticket distribution employed by INC in erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir to allocate the ticket from Ladakh to a Buddhist candidate to ensure an equitable religious representation of various communities of Jammu and Kashmir in the Parliament. The bifurcation of the state has clearly altered the context in which the norm operated. Further, the fact that INC (with mandate for Leh) has failed to secure Lok Sabha seat from Ladakh for around three decades would force the party to reconsider its approach, if INC fails to win this time as well.

The denial of the mandate to Kargil catalyzed the creation of probably an unprecedented electoral wonder: district units of two political parties (INC and NC) came together as Ladakh Democratic Alliance to field the district president of NC as an independent candidate against the will of the respective parent organizations. Later, in a rare display of the “more loyal than the king” act, the high command of NC exercised pressure on its district unit to support Congress’s Tsering Namgyal in line with NC’s commitment to “INDIA Alliance promise”. Eventually, the leaders of NC unit of Kargil resigned en masse with the claim of commitment to “unity” (of Kargil) than the party. The Congress, however, did not discipline its own leadership from the Kargil district.

All exercises of fielding of a united candidate in Ladakh (at the district levels) in the past has always been promoted by religious organizations. This time, fielding of the “unity” candidate in Kargil with the involvement of political parties – in a departure from the pattern of 2019 – saw religious organizations, particularly ISK being pushed to the margin. The long and the strong association of Haji Haifa Jan with ISK ensured that Sajjad Kargili had to withdraw from the race. 

With a single candidate from Kargil, the electoral process was expected to get polarized along the divide of the two districts—with religion playing the main tool of mobilisation. An effort in that direction—to field a unity candidate (from Leh) was also evident in Leh in the efforts of Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA). However, the units of BJP and INC having secured the party mandates for candidates from Leh prioritised responsibilities as wings of rival national political parties over any quest for unity. Despite a single candidate from Kargil, both the candidates from Leh desisted from overt employment of a religious tone in campaigns to consolidate the Buddhist votes in their favour. In fact, campaigns by all three candidates had a more syncretic character with all the candidates making symbolic visits to key figures and organizations across religions. This suggests the growing salience of a new Ladakhi identity that has emerged and evolved in the post-UT context. 

The series of protests and dialogues led by the joint coalition of the Leh based Apex Body and Kargil Democratic Alliance has been the mainstay of Ladakh’s politics in the aftermath of Ladakh’s emergence as a Union Territory. The 66-days sit-in protest starting with Sonam Wanghcuk’s ‘fast unto death’ on 6 March 2024 – after the rounds talks of the Ladakhi leadership with the Centre on the four-point demands (including demands for Sixth Schedule and the Statehood) failed to produce any result – formed the immediate backdrop to the election campaigns. Safeguards for Ladakh (articulated in the four-point agenda) are at the core of the recent incarnation of sub-nationalism in Ladakh – and had a major impact on how all the three candidates projected themselves. To begin with, Haji Hanifa Jan simply borrowed the “four points” into his campaign posters. Drawing on its national elections manifesto, the Nyay Patra, the INC made the demand for Sixth Schedule its main electoral slogan. It maintained a strategic silence on the demand of statehood – probably due to the fact that the consensus on the specific demand is not as strong (in Leh) as it is in the case for the demand of Sixth Schedule. With the protests in the backdrop, the BJP found itself in difficult spot and in a situation of electoral ambiguity. This was evident in the contradictory approach of BJP towards the issue and the protest. In a speech at beginning of BJP’s campaign that also marked his acquiescence to the candidature of Tashi Gyaltsen, JTN attacked the leadership of the protest for misguiding people during the period of the Model Code of Conduct. On the other hand, Tashi Gyaltsen later in another meeting, expressed the need to express gratitude to people at the protest site for their commitment to the cause. As the candidate from BJP and situated between people of Ladakh and the Centre, Tashi Gyaltsen presented himself as the mediator and committed to the resumption of the dialogue on the four-points agenda. Gyaltsen presented securing safeguards for Ladakh evolved on the basis of a consensus of the people of Ladakh and all the religious organizations as his main electoral promise.

Other than shaping the electoral agenda, active participation in the series of protests and sit-ins appear to have a direct bearing on people’s awareness. This election season saw them move beyond their role as simply voters exercising choice on the day of polling. The people were not just passive recipients of monologues delivered by politicians during campaigns. Several campaign outreach programmes in the community halls of villages saw people jump on to the stage and express themselves on various issues (especially, the Sixth Schedule) and engage in dialogues with campaigners. Democracy clearly deepened with dialogue and protests being the mainstay of the election season and star campaigners being pushed to the margins. In such a context, the notable absence of big-ticket rallies involving key faces from New Delhi was unsurprising. This is in contrast to the LAHDC-Leh elections of 2020 which saw several Union ministers camp and campaign in Leh. 

This is the second essay in a three-part series on the Parliamentary elections in Ladakh. 

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