Is This the End of the Road for the BJP in Ladakh?

The resignation of influential Buddhist leader Thupstan Chhewang is being seen as major setback for the right-wing party, which has already lost three consecutive local elections.

Srinagar: As winter sets in in Jammu and Kashmir, the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) is witnessing a political chill in the cold desert of Ladakh.

After three consecutive losses in local level polls, the party faced a huge setback last week when sitting MP Thupstan Chhewang resigned from BJP’s basic membership and renounced his seats from Ladakh. In the run up to the big electoral battle of 2019, this is a major cause of concern for the party.

Behind all of this lie the unfulfilled promises the right-wing party had made before the 2014 parliament elections, and the “neglect” the region faced on the developmental front even when the BJP was sharing power with the People’s Democratic Party in the state.

Such has been the disillusionment that even some senior local leaders concede that the party faces the threat of being wiped out from political landscape of the region.

The Chhewang shocker

A respected voice in Ladakh and someone with influence within the Buddhist community, 72-year-old Chhewang took everybody by surprise when he announced his resignation on November 14, on “health grounds”.

While the party attempted damage control, saying the Buddhist leader has “embraced spirituality” and shunned politics, a senior BJP leader said Chhewang’s decision was “expected”, given how the Centre has made a U-turn on its promise of granting union territory status to Ladakh.

“This was the basis on which he (Chhewang) merged his Ladakh Union Territory Front (LUTF) with the BJP in 2010. He is a Ladakhi nationalist but feels betrayed by the BJP now,” said the party leader.

Also, for quite some time now, Chhewang had been “sidelined” in political matters related to Ladakh. The promotion of party men close to state BJP president Ravinder Raina, like the election of inexperienced Jamyang Tsering Namgyal as new chief executive councilor (CEC) of the Ladakh Hill Development Council (LHDC), Leh are seen among other reasons for his sudden decision.

Thupstan Chhewang’s resignation letter.

Why this Buddhist leader matters

As a young political activist, Chhewang started his career in the early 1970s with the demand for UT status to Ladakh. He was imprisoned by the then government of Mir Qasim, which brought him into the limelight, said senior journalist from Ladakh Sajjad Hussain.

Then, he served as president of the Ladakh Buddhist Association, a body that worked for the welfare of Leh, from 1988 to 1995 – the year LHDC Leh came into being. Chhewang became the first CEC of the autonomous body. Five years later, he formed the LUTF and revived the demand for UT status to the region comprising of two districts, Leh and Kargil. This demand, though, has no takers in Kargil.

In 2004, he won the MP election as an independent candidate with LUTF backing. In 2010, he merged the LUTF with the BJP after the latter promised UT status to Ladakh if voted to power in 2014. Chhewang won the last general election “almost single handedly”, defeating his nearest rival from the Congress by a small margin of 36 votes.

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As a BJP man, his win opened doors for the party in Ladakh at a larger level. Senior party leaders from New Delhi and Jammu would often fly to Ladakh to hold meetings with leaders from the local unit to work on expansion plans.

Hussain said Union minister Nitin Gadkari, who addressed a rally in Leh ahead of the 2014 parliament elections, had vowed that the BJP government would grant UT status to Ladakh within six months of coming to power. And, he said, even Prime Minister Narendra Modi had talked about ending “decades of discrimination” meted out to the region.

Chhewang holds sway in Leh, which has an 80% Buddhist population, said Hussain, adding that his decision to quit could mean the party was in “great trouble”.

In fact, the senior leader had made his intentions clear in June this year, days after the fall of PDP-BJP government in J&K, when he openly accused the party of shelving the UT promise and spoke of “discrimination” the region faced during its rule.

While Chhewang couldn’t be reached for comment, one of his close aides, who did not wish to be named, said he was “very upset because the way the party has treated Ladakh”. “His worry is how he will go back to people when he failed to deliver on the promise for which he was voted to power in the last election,” said the party member.

Other unfulfilled promises

There has been no headway in the construction of a 14-km tunnel at Zojilla pass on the Srinagar-Kargil-Leh highway that would provide round-the-year connectivity to landlocked Ladakh – another poll promise. The region remains cut off for six months owing to heavy snowfall at Zojilla pass, which is situated at an altitude of 11,578 feet.

Other demands like the inclusion of Bhoti language in the eighth schedule of constitution, opening the Kailash Mansarovar route via Ladakh, establishing a full-fledged university in Ladakh, developing the health sector on modern lines and providing phone connectivity in remote areas haven’t seen any progress during more than four years of BJP rule at the Centre.

“The party hasn’t fulfilled a single promise made to people and the anger among masses is getting reflected election after election in the region,” said senior Congress leader and the party’s Ladakh face, Nawang Rigzin Jora. “People will bundle them (BJP) off from Ladakh now.”

Zora agreed that the BJP had been able to maintain a grip over Leh due to the Chhewang factor. “He has a high stature but with him out, the countdown has begun for the party.”

The fallout

Resentment against the BJP can be gauged from the fact that it failed to win even a single segment in the recently concluded civic body polls in Ladakh. The party drew a blank in both Leh and Kargil, and all 26 wards in two municipal committees were won either by the Congress or independents backed by National Conference.

The party did not have much hope in Kargil, where people have outright rejected it. But the defeat in Leh, where BJP controls the 30-member LHDC, was an embarrassment. The crushing defeat forced BJP CEC LHDC Leh Dorjey Motup to resign from the position on October 29. He was succeeded by Namgyal.

Prior to this defeat, the BJP managed to win just a solitary segment in elections to the LHDC, Kargil. The party had fielded candidates on 14 segments and was fighting in alliance with independent MLA Bakir Hussain Rizvi on six other segments.

The biggest shocker for the party was, however, losing the by-election to the prestigious Thiksay constituency seat in Leh to the Congress. The seat had fallen vacant after the demise of former BJP chairman LHDC Leh, Sonam Dawa Lonpo. The Congress had never won the seat since 1995, when the LHDC was established.

Senior BJP leader Ashok Koul agreed that the losses in recent elections were a “matter of concern”. “It shows that we are lagging behind on people’s expectations. There have been demands and issues. They are there and nobody can deny it,” said Koul.

He also acknowledged that Chhewang’s decision to quit politics was a “huge setback” for the BJP. “It is a big loss for us. He is the tallest leader of the region and we will try to convince him to reconsider his decision,” said Koul.

With general elections a few months away and the state staring at prospects of early assembly polls, will the BJP be able to ensure course correction in time? “Only a miracle can help the BJP to make a comeback, given the precarious situation the party finds itself in today,” said journalist Hussain.

Mudasir Ahmad is a Srinagar-based reporter.