26 June 2024

Ladakh and Parliamentary Elections III: Reading the Verdict

The 2024 parliamentary election in Ladakh garnered significant attention since it was the first one after its separation from the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Like the rest of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, the politics of the region operated in the context of “exception” – significantly influenced by the high politics of Kashmir, making national security the central priority. A closer integration with India and decoupling from Kashmir—the cardinal goal of the sub-national sentiments of the region (particularly expressed from Leh)—had become real with the historic decision of August 5, 2019 removing Article 370 and bifurcating the state. The previous essay in this series mapped the unfolding of the election process in the current electoral season, with the determination of the candidate being the highlight event and safeguards for Ladakh emerging as the main issue. This essay attempts an assessment of the verdict and its implications for politics of the region. 

Contrary to the expectations of both opinion polls and some exit polls on Ladakh, Haji Hanifa Jan, the independent candidate fielded by the Ladakh Democratic Alliance secured a huge victory, with 48.15 percent votes polled in his favour. Tsering Namgyal (INC) with 27.59 percent votes and Tashi Gyaltsen (BJP) with 23.58 percent votes came second and third, respectively, in the triangular contest. The percentage of votes for BJP and Congress in 2019 parliamentary elections were 33.9 and 16.8 respectively and the two independent candidates in that contest secured 25.3 percent and 23.2 percent of total votes polled. Considering the fact that the two independents were from Kargil and their combined figure was 48.5 percent votes, a preliminary conclusion can be drawn that the vote share of independent candidates from last time converged in favour of Haji Hanifa Jan. Likewise, the ten percent increase in the Congress’s vote share in current election came at the cost of the BJP.

Drawing on conventional logic of the operation of electoral politics in Ladakh, religious polarization in the voting pattern with Muslim votes going in favour of Hanifa Jan is being presented as the only causality. However, this is lazy analysis – clubbing regional and religious divides as the basis of voting misses important details. The fact that Hanifa Jan – despite being the sole candidate from Kargil could not touch 50 percent votes – even if Kargil has more number of voters and had bigger turnout (nine per cent more compared with Leh) casts significant doubt on validity of regional/religion divide as the sole electoral factor in operation. The conventional explanation also ignores the emerging trends evident at booth levels. Several predominantly Muslim booths in Leh cast more votes in favour of Gyaltsen and Namgial than Hanifa Jan. Further, contrary to established patterns, Hanifa Jan secured more postal votes than BJP. These trends suggest the diminishing currency of religion/region-based explanations and point towards the emergence and the strengthening of the Ladakhi political identity with elements shared across religious and regional divides. 

The Congress and BJP will draw different implications from the election for their political and electoral fortunes, particularly in Leh, which is geared for Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) polls next year. With a 10 percent increase on its 2019 performance and a huge lead over BJP among the votes polled in Leh district, Congress has a head-start over the BJP in the race for the next Hill Council. With maximum votes polled in his favour and a campaign taking him closer to the masses, Tsering Namgial has emerged as the main leader to whom Nawang Rigzin Jora, the Ladakh Territorial Congress president, can pass the baton, thus completing the generation shift in the leadership of Leh Congress. 

For the BJP, a 10 percent fall represents massive popular sentiment against the government, aggravated after the last round of talks before elections between the Ladakhi leadership and the centre failed to produce any result and the failure of the local BJP leadership to visit the site of the 66-day-long sit-in protests. The BJP’s own acknowledgement of its weakness in Ladakh was evident in its replacement of the incumbent candidate, Jamyang Tsering Namgial with Tashi Gyaltsen. There was also an absence of star campaigners and an active campaign matching the scale of the 2019 elections. The party can, however, take some positives in the fact that despite several factors going against it, including cracks in the regional unit of the party, it managed to keep the margin with the Congress under five percent. More significant was the manner in which Tashi Gyaltsen conducted himself during the campaign and how he cast himself in the role of a mediator between the Centre and the Ladakhi leadership. For both its electoral prospects in Ladakh and the objective of addressing broader popular discontent within Ladakh, the BJP needs to ensure reconciliation with the movement in Ladakh. Here, Tashi Gyaltsen can capitalise on his image of a leader respecting elders from across the board in a traditional/tribal context—a credential acknowledged by Ladakh’s Congress president—to resume the dialogue with the Centre and supplement it with back-channel contacts with the leadership of the movement. The fact that, as the Chief Executive Councillor (LAHDC-Leh), he holds the most important executive post by any leader of BJP in Ladakh will allow him to exercise greater agency and play a more proactive role without the need to defer to the parliamentarian from Ladakh, as was the case when the BJP also held the Parliament seat. 

Ladakh’s latest electoral verdict has also opened the door to a new set of political narratives. Sajjad Kargili has considered the verdict a rejection of the decision of 5 August 2019 of bifurcation of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Haji Hanifa Jan, meanwhile, has throughout been emphasizing – both during elections and after it – his commitment to the four-points agenda or in other words, the prevalent sub-nationalist sentiment in Ladakh. In the aftermath of the verdict, he has repeatedly conveyed a specific meaning and message of the verdict – he has cleverly combined his numbers with those secured by Tashi Namgial to outline the joint proportion of 80 percent rejecting the BJP in Ladakh. The result according to him is a verdict not on 5 August 2019 but a popular rejection of how governance has unfolded in Ladakh and how central government responded to popular sentiment in the four years after the decision to bifurcate the state. Hanifa Jan’s success puts Kargil in a unique spot in contemporary politics of Ladakh. Kargil has been called out repeatedly by the leadership of Leh for its notable absence in key regional/subnational movements—for the Scheduled Tribe status, for the Hill Council and for the UT status. With Hanifa Jan’s victory, Kargil now has the opportunity to not just meaningfully participate in the current incarnation of the sub-national movement in Ladakh – for statehood and Sixth Schedule – but also to take an important leadership role. Haji Hanifa Jan’s responsibility demands he move up from the role of a seasoned politician to that of a statesman. His conduct in New Delhi and in the 18th Lok Sabha could have lasting consequences for the political future of Ladakh.

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