Ladakh Polls: A Bitter Old Contest Between Leh and Kargil

Srinagar: The election in the cold desert of Ladakh is no different than the past – a contest bitterly fought between Muslim majority Kargil and Buddhist-dominated Leh.

But what could deepen the division further this time around is a move by the Congress to field a proxy candidate in Kargil to divide the voters and counter an independent candidate – young journalist-turned-politician Sajjad Hussain.

The quadrangular contest

With an area of 1.74 lakh sq kms, Ladakh is geographically the largest constituency of the country and is set to witness a quadrangular contest. In the race for the Lok Sabha are BJP’s Tsering Namgyal, chief executive councillor (CEC) of Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC), Leh; Congress’s Rigzin Saplbar, former CEC Leh; Hussain, the joint candidate of National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party and former Congress MLA Asgar Ali Karbalai, the party’s proxy.

While Saplbar and Namgyal are from Leh, Hussain and Karbalai are from Kargil. In the run up to the polls political parties and two powerful religious schools of Kargil – Islamia School and Imam Khomeini Trust – held several rounds of talks to decide on a consensus candidate against the BJP. But the Congress ultimately walked out of the talks and announced Saplbar’s candidature for Leh.

Also read: Divisional Status in Ladakh Snubs the Demands of Kargil’s People

While state Congress president G.A. Mir claimed they have served a showcause notice to “rebel” Karbalia for joining the election fray, in the same breath, without mincing words, he said the contest could finally end up as “Congress versus Congress fight” between Leh and Kargil, in an acknowledgement that the party has fielded Karbalai.

Karbalai has served as CEC Kargil twice before he won 2014 assembly election on the party ticket from Kargil.

What is the Congress strategy?

In the 2014 election campaign, the BJP promised to grant Union Territory status to Ladakh, built the Zojilla tunnel for around-the-year connectivity to the region, include the Bhoti language in 8th schedule of constitution of India and open the Kailash Mansarovar road for pilgrims and tourists. These and many other issues have been the long pending demands of people of Ladakah.

But the BJP, which ruled at the Centre for five years, didn’t fulfill a single promise. This has led to resentment among people of Ladakh, particularly in Leh where the party enjoyed support among Buddhist population.

The Congress has been targeting the BJP on these failed promises and it aims to tap on the anger against the rightwing party. This anger against the BJP was also evident on three occasions in the past two years. The party could manage just a solitary seat of total 26 seats in election to LAHDC, Kargil last year. Then, the BJP lost municipal elections in twin districts badly followed by defeat on Thiksay seat in LHDC, Leh to Congress, for the first time since the body was set up in 1995.

The BJP’s “betrayal” even saw it’s MP and senior Buddhist leader Thupstan Chhewang, who is a respected figure and has large following among Buddhists, resigning from the basic membership and renouncing his seat from Ladakh in November last year.

“The BJP has betrayed people of Ladakh and they will teach the party a lesson on May 6 (the day elections are slated for Ladakh seat),” said Mir.

In Kargil where BJP has failed to make any influence on electoral front, Congress and National Conference enjoy the support base. Though the NC controls the powerful LHDC in Kargil, Congress plans to fight PDP and NC’s consensus candidate Hussain through Karbalia, by dividing Muslim vote.

Residents of Kargil district protest against Leh being made the permanent headquarters of the newly created Ladakh division, in Jammu, on Monday, February 11, 2019. Credit: PTI

35-year old Hussain, who worked with Iran-based Sehar Urdu TV before joining politics, hogged the headlines recently over his stand on equal share in divisional status for Kargil. He led the agitation that saw the governor’s administration finally acceding to the demands of people of Kargil.

While Hussain has the backing of Islamia School which has traditionally sided with NC, Karbalai is supported by Imam Khomeini Trust, which has always gone the Congress way. These two religious schools enjoy the mass support of their respective followers.

If the three parties – NC, Congress and PDP – had arrived at consensus on a single candidate from Kargil, many believe it would have been cakewalk for them in the election. But the Congress chose to go alone.

A senior party leader however argued they couldn’t have afforded to annoy Leh by supporting the independent candidate from Kargil. “Also, there is lot of anger against BJP in Leh and the party has worked tirelessly in the district during past five years. The decision was also taken keeping in view the upcoming state elections,” he said, adding the bitter political history between the two districts makes it quite difficult for transformation of vote from one region for candidate from another region.

Also read: J&K Administration Creates Separate Division for Ladakh

“In Leh we expect Anjuman Moin-ul Islam Leh (another religious school) will support us,” said a senior Congress leader. This school has influence over Muslim population of the district that constitutes around 20 percent of the total population.

Ladakh has a total of 174,618 voters – 86,752 males and 85,064 females – the overall voter population of Kargil is better by around 2500 votes than Leh. However with the two religious schools of Kargil going in opposite directions the Muslims votes are set to get divided among the two candidates, Hussain and Karbalia.

“This may shift the contest to Leh where Congress has been highlighting the betrayal done by the BJP with people,” said political analyst Siddiq Wahid who comes from Leh.

Will a divided house in Kargil help BJP?

Hussain, who has been campaigning endlessly since he got the candidature last month, accused the Congress of dividing the voters in Kargil, terming it as “anti-secular move”. He cited the example of Jammu where both NC and PDP didn’t field candidates and stood behind the Congress to ensure that secular vote doesn’t get divided.

“Unfortunately here (in Ladakh) the Congress exactly acted the opposite way,” said Hussain who has been able to attract large crowds during his campaigning. He claimed the contest was between him and BJP.

Coming into this election after facing three consecutive defeats in local elections, the BJP sees an opportunity in the division of electorate in Kargil. To brighten its prospects the party knows it will have to heavily depend on voters from Leh. But 2019 is not 2014 and with Chhewang not by its sides this time, the task for the BJP gets even tougher.

BJP’s district president for Kargil Mohammad Ali Majaz said they were “confident” of repeating 2014 performance. He counted divisional status to Ladakh, a full-fledged university to Leh and grant of more financial powers to the LHDCs during the ongoing governor’s rule in the state as “some of the pro-people decision taken by BJP during the past one year for Ladakhis”.

At the same time he asserted that besides “focusing” on Leh, the BJP has nurtured “some pockets” in Kargil as well. “We secured around 2500 votes from Kargil in the last election and it proved crucial in the end. This time our voter base has increased in Kargil,” said Majaz. The party had won the seat by just 36 votes in 2014.

Will Congress strategy come through or will BJP throw up another surprise? “It is going to be a very tough fight given how the electorate in Ladakh is getting divided bitterly,” argued Wahid.

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