When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke in Ladakh in the country’s far north on May 19, a large number of people gathered, expecting him to touch upon their key demands, including declaring the region a Union Territory – ruled directly by the federal government.
But Modi never mentioned the issue. Instead, the PM laid the foundation stone for a tunnel at Zoji La pass in the Himalayas, which is expected to make landlocked Ladakh more accessible during the five-month-long snowy winter.
Nearly three weeks later, on June 7, Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) faced an unexpected defeat at the hands of their Congress rivals in byelections for the Shey-Thiksay seat in the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC), which runs the key district of Leh. The election went unnoticed by national media, but it a further warning bell for the BJP.
Congress managed to wrest the Shey-Thiksay Council seat, despite the fact that the sole MP from Ladakh belongs to Modi’s saffron party. Further, the Congress had never won that seat, considered a National Conference stronghold before. The seat was left vacant following the demise of senior BJP leader and chief executive councilor of the LAHDC Sonam Dawa in January.
The BJP’s Shey-Thiksay poll loss came after crucial May 28 byelections, in which the party only managed to win three out of four assembly and 10 parliamentary seats in different parts of the country.
With an area of 45,100 sq km, Leh is one of India’s largest districts. According to the 2011 census, Buddhists and Hindus have a combined population of nearly 141,968 in Leh and Kargil districts, while the population of Muslims is around 127,295. Hindus and Buddhists generally follow a similar voting pattern. It is also a sensitive area as large parts of the region are occupied by China, a legacy of the 1962 border war. This region is also the main access point to the strategic Siachen Glacier.
In May 2014, three days before Ladakh went to vote for the national election, senior BJP leader and union transport minister Nitin Gadkari announced that the party would support Union Territory status for Ladakh once it came to power.
In 2015, the popular enthusiasm for Modi saw the BJP won a whopping 18 of 26 seats in the council election. This was the Hindu nationalist party’s first LAHDC victory. The Congress won five seats, National Conference won two, and an independent candidate won a seat too.
Later that year, the BJP also took charge of the state government, in an alliance with the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). But the promise of making Ladakh a Union Territory never came close to being fulfilled. And recently, the Narendra Modi government dismissed the PDP-BJP coalition government Jammu and Kashmir and brought it under central rule. The loss in Ladakh could be one of the reasons the BJP pulled out of the coalition in a bid to shore up its waning fortunes in the state, political observers have said.
‘Frustrated with BJP’
Political commentator Tsewang Rigzin believes people are frustrated with BJP government both in Delhi and in the state. “A person in landlocked Ladakh, who has to shell out more than Rs 20,000 during winter just to fly to New Delhi, could only understand that Delhi never thought about Ladakh. While Ladakh was promised Union Territory status and other developmental projects, nothing other than a foundation stone for Zoji La pass was laid by PM Modi,” Rigzin said.
Senior Congress leader and Member of Legislative Assembly from Leh Nawang Rigzin Jora, who led the party’s campaign for the byelections, said that Shey-Thiksay was a prestigious seat for all parties. “BJP had made many promises but was not able to deliver even on one. On the other hand, the Congress during its rule promised only things that were possible. Despite the fact that BJP used money power during elections, it faced defeat and will be ousted by Ladakhi people in 2019,” he said.
The Congress has controlled the LAHDC three times, while Ladakh Union Territory Front has ruled the autonomous body once. Based on the idea of decentralization, the body was constituted in accordance with the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council Act, 1995, and held its first elections on August 28, 1995.
Rinchen Angmo, a journalist based in Leh, said that apart from Union Territory status, local demands were including the Bhoti language in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution and opening up the Kailash Mansarovar route via Ladakh, but these were also not fulfilled.
“Hopes of the people have been dashed after four years of BJP rule. In 2014, BJP promised Union Territory status but nothing was done. People feel these were hollow promises made only for votes. The BJP’s image has suffered a major setback,” Angmo said.
Thupstan Chhewang, a BJP MP from Ladakh, said the Thiksay seat had a substantial number of Muslim voters who were turned against the BJP by religious and social organizations. “We had to put the Union Territory demand on the backburner as we came to power in alliance with the PDP. Had we come to power independently, we would have easily met the demand,” Chhewang said.
“The general election next year will be tough, and definitely not a cakewalk for BJP in Ladakh,” he noted.
(Arjun Sharma is a Ludhiana-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)