Political Dynamics of Ladakh Lok Sabha Constituency

Rekha Chowdhary
Post-2019 developments in Ladakh have been very interesting. Going beyond the traditional Buddhists versus Muslims differences on the one hand and Leh versus Kargil divergence on the other, Ladakhis across the regional and religious lines have been united and have making common demands. United as ‘Ladakhis’ rather than Leh-Buddhists or Kargil-Muslims, they have been struggling for empowerment and protection of common Ladakhi interests by demanding special provisions under the Sixth Schedule of Indian Constitution. With Ladakh having been granted UT status without legislature, they have also been demanding political empowerment and representation for Ladakhis.

Election Watch

What has been the unique development in Ladakh since the formation of the UT is coming together of Leh Apex Body (LAB) – a body representing various Leh based social and political organisations and Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA) – a conglomeration of various Kargil based social, religious and political organisations. Overcoming various challenges, these two bodies have shown unprecedented unity over last few years and given a common fight in pursuance of their demands. Though most of these demands have not been met, yet, what remains an important achievement for them is that they have not allowed many of the changes including those related to land and residentship that have been introduced in the UT of J&K to Ladakh.
It is in the light of these developments that the Lok Sabha Elections have assumed interesting dimensions. While LAB and KDA are watching from the shadows, election has become a three-cornered contest among BJP’s Tashi Gyalson, INDIA block’s candidate Tsering Namgyal representing Congress and an independent Kargil-based candidate, Haji Hanifa Jan.
The process of selecting the candidates by the respective parties was not smooth in any way. BJP itself had to go some initial difficulties as it had decided not to repeat its sitting MP Jamyang Tsering Namgyal and fielded a new candidate Tashi Gyalson – Chairman cum Chief Executive Councillor of Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council in Leh. With Jamyang Tesring Namgyal resenting the decision, there were some tensions, but soon the situation was handled by BJP and Namgyal came forward openly in favour of the official candidate of BJP.
Situation however has been much more complicated for the INDIA Bloc or the NC-Congress alliance. As per the all-J&K plan where a clear decision was taken that of the six seats of the erstwhile J&K state, each of the two parties will be contesting three seats each. Thus while NC would be contesting three seats of the Valley including Srinagar, Baramulla and Anantnag, the Congress will be contesting in the rest of the three constituencies namely Jammu, Udhampur and Ladakh. This arrangement seemed to be working quite well till Kargil’s NC leadership decided to field Haji Hanifa Jan as its candidate for the Parliamentary election. Following this announcement, the Congress party announced Tsering Namygyal as its candidate for the coming election. Meanwhile, while the Kargil based Congress leadership announced its support for Haji Hanifa, the NC announced its support for the Tsering Namgyal, the Congress candidate.
In short, there were lot of cross-party complications both within the NC as well as Congress. Tsering Namgyal, the Congress candidate was declared as the official INDIA bloc candidate for Ladakh with both NC and Congress supporting him. But this was not acceptable either to Kargil leadership of NC or to the Kargil leadership of Congress. In fact the whole of NC’s Kargil organisation submitted its resignation in protest against the party’s decision to support Namgyal. The Congress leadership within Kargil also revolted against the party and rather than supporting its official candidate Namgyal, decided to support Haji Hanifa Jan fielded by Kargil NC.
Though initially the situation within Kargil also seemed to be compounded with Sajjad Kargili, a well known KDA leader also filing his nomination paper. (He had been the first runner up during the 2019 Lok Sabha election). But after he withdrew his nomination paper, it became clear that Haji Hanifa Jan was the only candidate from Kargil having the support of local NC and local Congress members.
As things stand now, there are two candidates from Leh – Gaylson representing BJP and Namgyal representing Congress-NC Alliance. Meanwhile Haji Hanifa Jan is the only candidate from Kargil. With Kargil’s political class across the party, religious and social lines standing behind Haji Hanifa Jan – the election already seems to have taken a Leh versus Kargil scenario. However, with two Leh-based candidates in the field one representing the BJP and the other representing Congress-NC alliance – fight has become tough for both these Leh-based candidates.
If we go by the history of this constituency – though it was held by a Leh-based BJP candidate since 2014 (Thupstan Chhewang representing this party won it in 2014 and Jamyang Tsering Namgyal won it for BJP in 2019), Kargil was not invisible in the fight. In 2019, while Jamyang Tsering Namgyal of BJP won with 42,914 votes, two candidates from Kargil had polled larger number of votes in combination. Sajjad Hussain Kargili had got 31,984 votes and Asghar Ali Karbalai had got 29,365 votes. (Congress candidate, Rigzin Spalbar from Leh had meanwhile got 21,241 votes).
In 2014 also, as against 31,111 vote of winning BJP candidate (and 26,402 votes for Congress candidates) the combined votes of two independent candidates from Kargil were much higher than the votes of the winning candidate ( 31,075 votes for Ghulam Raza and 28,234 votes for Syed Mohd Kazim).
As one can see, it is mainly because of the splitting of votes in Kargil that a Leh based candidate has been winning the election. But there have been occasions when Kargil based candidates could also win the election – thus Ghulam Hasan Khan of Kargil won it in 2009 as well as in 1999. In 1998 and 1989 also the constituency was held by Kargil-based candidate.
It seems that Kargil’s political class assessing its political strength has taken the risk of going beyond the party lines and showing a united face in this election. It is interesting to note that divisions with Kargil have not only been existing between the parties like NC and Congress but also between two well-known religious schools – the Imam Khomeini Memorial Trust and Islamia School. However, it remains a big question if this unity will be translated into votes? One would know that only on the day of counting of votes.
However, when Kargil unites, what is at stake, is the larger unity within Ladakh. As stated in the beginning, Leh based LAB and Kargil based KDA have not only come together to give a combined fight for their demands but they have sustained this unity over last few years. With a traditional rivalry between Leh and Kargil, this unprecedented alliance has struck till now, despite many challenges. Will the 2024 Parliamentary election make a dent in this unity? It is another big question.
That election for the single Parliamentary constituency, has the potential of polarising Ladakh on religious and regional lines – has been an argument given by LAB and KDA. It is on the basis of this argument that they have included the demand for two Parliamentary seats for Ladakh – one for Leh and one for Kargil, in their list of pending demands before the Centre. While that demand may not be fulfilled immediately – one can see the political tug of war between Leh and Kargil in the present election.
(Feedback welcome at rekchowdhary@gmail.com )