Srinagar: “Ab ki baar, 26 paar (This time, we will win all 26 seats)” has been the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) catchline in the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, Leh elections. While the slogan exudes confidence, the fact that the party has brought in a battery of Central ministers to campaign reflects its electoral worries.
In the last 17 days, the BJP has sent four Union ministers to campaign in the Buddhist-dominated Leh district, for an election in which just 89,000 people have voting rights and constituencies are small, with a few thousand people each. One seat has only 719 voters.
The right-wing party is going all out to retain its control over the LAHDC, Leh which it had won for the first time in 2015 when it was sharing power with People’s Democratic Party in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir.
The bigwigs chipping in for the campaign include Mukthar Abbas Naqvi (Union minister for minority affairs), Kiren Rijiju (Union minister of state for youth services and sports), Anurag Thakur (Union minister of state for finance and corporate affairs). The two-day visit of G. Krishna Reddy (Union minister of state for home) to Ladakh in the last week of September was also part of the BJP’s election strategy, to placate locals who were angry with its “flip-flops” on granting special status to the newly carved out union territory of Ladakh under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution.
Those acquainted with Council politics claim that this is the first time that Central ministers from other states are campaigning for any party in the elections. “Union ministers have never come here during Hill Council elections. They usually used to come for campaigning during the Lok Sabha elections,” says Chering Dorjey Lakrook, former chief executive councilor of Leh and ex-minister in the erstwhile state of J&K.
President of the Ladakh Territorial Congress, Nawang Rigzin Jora termed the elections a “fight between the local unit of the Congress and the might of the Government of India”.
“Kiren Rijiju and Naqvi came here. MoS finance Thakur also camped here for many days. Earlier, MoS home came here,” he says.
He claimed that BJP is rushing Union Ministers to Leh for campaigning as “they find the going tough” here. “The people are against BJP because there are no safeguards for jobs, land and our distinct culture. We will fight for protecting rights of Ladakhis,” he said.
Just a month ago, things were not same for the BJP as their victory then seemed a foregone conclusion for fulfilling the district’s longstanding demand of granting union territory status to Ladakh. But political dynamics in the region changed after all political and religious groups joined hands and rallied behind the demand for special status to the region under the Sixth Schedule.
The ‘Apex Committee for Sixth Schedule for Ladakh’, an amalgam of different political parties and socio-religious organisations, last month announced that it would boycott the polls until the constitutional safeguards under the Sixth Schedule on the lines of the Bodo Territorial Council are extended to Ladakh.
The BJP’s Leh district president was also a signatory to the joint resolution for Sixth Schedule, but its general secretary for J&K and Ladakh units Ashok Koul termed the boycott call as “bakwas (nonsense)”, triggering protests and a shutdown in the region.
In a damage-control move, Koul later claimed that his remarks were twisted and he stood behind all the demands made by the people of Leh.
The conglomerate’s boycott call sent alarm bells ringing in New Delhi, prompting the Centre to open channels of communication with the leadership.
On September 26, a special plane flew leaders from Leh to New Delhi for holding talks with Union home minister Amit Shah.
A day later, the group withdrew its election boycott call following the Centre’s assurance that all issues related to language, demography, ethnicity, land and jobs will be considered positively and taken care of.
“A dialogue between a larger Ladakhi delegation comprising representatives from Leh and Kargil districts under the aegis of the People’s Movement for Constitutional Safeguard Under Sixth Schedule for Ladakh and the Union home ministry would commence after 15 days of the culmination of LAHDC, Leh elections,” reads the joint statement issued by former MPs Thiksay Rinpoche and Thupstan Chhewang, former BJP minister Chering Dorjey and Union ministers Kiren Rijiju and G. Kishan Reddy.
The Centre’s intervention may have managed to calm the political crisis and salvage the BJP’s image to some extent, but the party’s problems are far from over. Ticket distribution has sparked trouble within its ranks, and several leaders have deserted the party.
BJP’s general secretary, Ashok Koul, however, is confident of winning the elections. “We will win more than 20 seats,” Koul said, adding that ministers from J&K had also campaigned for the party in 2015 elections.
Ladakh was a part of the erstwhile state of J&K when the last LAHDC, Leh elections were held in 2015.
Those familiar with local politics of Leh told The Wire that the usually predictable electoral sentiment of the region is now mired in ambiguity and confusion. Unlike previous elections, they said, it is difficult to predict a winner this time.
The results of the previous five elections reveal that they have been largely a one-sided affair.
In the first election held in 1995, Congress won all 26 seats. In the second election, the party repeated its performance by winning more than 20 seats. The Congress, however, lost to the Ladakh Union Territorial Front in 2005 which bagged 24 seats. In the 2010 election, Congress made a comeback, winning 22 out of 26 seats. In the last election, BJP managed to wrest control of the Council from Congress by winning 18 out of 26 seats.
Out of 30 seats in the Hill Council, elections are held for only 26 seats. The government nominates councilors for the remaining four seats.
This time, the ruling BJP is facing a tough challenge from the Congress, independents and Aam Aadmi Party in the elections. The main contest is between the BJP and Congress, but independents could also take away a few seats.
The entry of Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party, which is trying to gain a foothold in Leh, has added spice to the electoral battle. The party is gaining some traction and could open its account from Leh.
RSS-BJP strategies in Ladakh
Over the past 25 years, the RSS-BJP have been trying to establish their strong presence in the region.
The annual Sindhu Darshan is seen by many as an RSS-BJP strategy to establish its presence in Ladakh. The festival was conceived by former BJP president and the deputy prime minister Lal Krishna Advani when he visited Choglamsar near Leh in 1996, during the elections. In October 1997, the first Sindhu Darshan took place.
The 24th Sindu Darshan festival was inaugurated by RSS leader Indresh Kumar a few days ago. Among others, he was accompanied by former Gujarat minister Maya Kodnani, an accused in the Gujarat massacre of 2002.
Kodnani visited Leh after a local court in Gujarat suspended for six months the bail condition restricting her from leaving the state without its permission.
The second initiative of the Sangh in the region has been the establishment of a non-local organisation, ‘Ladakh Phande Tsogspa (LPT)’, which claims to be working for social and educational causes in the region.
In 2010, the BJP gained a further foothold in the region when the Ladakh Union Territory Front (LUTF) headed by influential leader Thupsan Chewang merged with it.
In 2014, the BJP won the Ladakh Lok Sabha seat for the first time. It also won the seat in 2019, due to a division of Congress votes.