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Lok Sabha polls: In Ladakh, voters' distrust for politicians, unkept promises leave parties struggling to find candidates

Jammu: With resentment against national and Jammu and Kashmir's mainstream parties at an all-time high among Ladakh voters, regional parties in the state are now faced with the challenge of picking the right candidate for the Ladakh Lok Sabha constituency.

Most voters have vowed to only rally behind a local face, declaring a de facto boycott of candidates of every political party.

The anger over representatives of political parties is due to various reasons, notes Kargil-based journalist Sajjad Hussain. While people in Leh want Union Territory status, in Kargil, citizens have raised the pitch for separate divisional headquarters, he says.

 Lok Sabha polls: In Ladakh, voters distrust for politicians, unkept promises leave parties struggling to find candidates

The town of Leh, in Ladakh division of Jammu and Kashmir. Reuters

"Meanwhile, Ladakh residents are suspicious of all political parties who have never quite paid heed to their woes," Hussain adds.

Ladakh — one of the largest Lok Sabha constituencies in terms of area — seems to have already made up its mind to rebel, putting political parties who are in the process of choosing candidates in a fix.

Some insiders, however, say the delay in the announcement of candidate names is not just thanks to Ladakh residents' avowed insistence on not backing a particular candidate but because of something much more sinister.

BJP looks at reviving its fortunes

The constituency is slated to go for polls in the fifth phase, on 6 May.

At the time of publishing the report, only the Bharatiya Janata Party has announced its candidate, Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, popularly known as "JTN". Thirty-five-year-old JTN is an elected councillor from Martselang and the chief executive councillor (CEC) of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) at Leh. Ladakh region is managed by two LAHDCs, one which looks after Leh district and the other, after Kargil district.

JTN took over as the CEC in November, 2018, after a "revolt" in the Ladakh unit of the BJP over what was seen as the failure of the party to address the aspirations and hopes of people of the Ladakh region.

The internal revolt led to the former CEC, Dorjey Motup, resigning. That was not the only offshoot of the revolt within the BJP's ranks. In the civic elections, which were held late last year, the party's candidates could not win even a single seat.

Jamyang Tsering Namgyal. Twitter/@ashishtikooo

BJP's Ladakh candidate Jamyang Tsering Namgyal. Twitter/@ashishtikooo

The BJP suffered yet another jolt in January, 2019, when five of its councillors resigned from the Leh LAHDC, where it had won 18 of the 26 seats in the council elections in 2015.

NC, Congress, PDP tread with caution

The National Conference and Congress, as it is known, have entered into a partial pre-poll alliance in Jammu and Kashmir. The NC has left two seats for the Congress in Jammu while the latter has not fielded any candidates for the Srinagar seat.

Both the parties have fielded their own candidates in Anantnag and Baramulla Lok Sabha constituencies. On the other hand, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which has been grappling with a number of issues after being dumped by its coalition partner BJP in June, 2018, has surrendered two Jammu seats. Jammu is considered to be the BJP’s bastion and the PDP's move is largely suspected to have arisen out of the necessity to not split the party's secular vote bank. Insiders say that the party may stand back in Ladakh as well.

Senior Congress leader from Leh and former tourism minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Nawang Rigzin Jora, says there is a "bleak possibility" of the NC and Congress entering a pre-poll alliance in Ladakh. "We have sent two candidates' names – one each from Kargil and Leh – to the high command, for the upcoming polls. Our candidates will be declared soon," Jora insists.

The Kargil LAHDC is managed by NC. The Congress, it must be noted, has a substantial vote base in Ladakh.

Senior PDP leader and former CEC of Kargil LAHDC, Kacho Ahmad Ali Khan, says the delay in announcing candidates' names is caused by the necessity to form a consensus between political parties so that division of votes can be avoided as this could benefit the BJP. "There is a situation of Kargil-versus-Leh in the region and any polarization on communal or regional lines can help BJP win the polls. This is the reason that all political parties are moving ahead with caution," says Khan.

All the parties are acutely aware of the fact that in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Ladakh witnessed a total turnout of 70.78 percent, the highest among all six constituencies of Jammu and Kashmir. Ladakh has nearly 118,029 voters.

Differences simmer between Kargil, Leh

It might also be worthwhile to note that division lines separating the two districts of Ladakh were recently sharpened when the state government granted divisional status to Ladakh, and announced that its headquarters would be at Leh.

PM Narendra Modi speaks in Ladakh in 2014. ANI

PM Narendra Modi speaks in Ladakh in 2014. ANI

Upset with the government's decision, Kargil, which predominantly comprises Muslims, had erupted in protest and demanded that the Divisional Commissioner and Inspector General of Police posted in the region must be stationed on a rotational basis at Kargil and Leh and not headquartered at Leh alone. Ultimately, the Jammu and Kashmir government had conceded to protesters' their demands and decided to set up offices of the Divisional Commissioner and Inspector General of Police at Kargil too.

An unkept promise

Leh division, a majority of residents of which are of Buddhist faith, has been pressing for  to end the decades-long perceived hegemony of Muslim-majority Kashmir over the region.

Prior to 2014 polls, the BJP had promised that if the party was voted to power, it would give Union Territory status to Ladakh and include the Bhoti language in the Eighth Schedule. The BJP is yet to make good on the promise, a fact which many feel has led a chunk of Ladakhis to turn against the party.

Sitting BJP MP, Thuptsan Chhewang, had even resigned from the Lok Sabha and party in 2018 to protest against the failure of the BJP leadership to keep grant Union Territory status to Ladakh, but to no avail.

Along with his resignation, Chhewang also wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, reminding him of the BJP's unkept promises to Ladakhis.

A tradition of alternation

Interestingly, Ladakh has witnessed a tradition of more or less alternatively electing Buddhists and Muslims as MPs for quite some time. In 1989, an Independent candidate, Mohammad Hassan Commander, became the MP from Ladakh. In 1996, P Namgyal of the Congress represented the region in the Parliament.

Fresh elections were held after the government collapsed at the Centre in 1998, and NC leader Syed Hussain was elected. In 1999, Hassan Khan won as the NC's candidate, and in 2004, Independent candidate Thupstan Chhewang was declared winner. In 2009, Hassan Khan returned to the Lok Sabha as an Independent but by 2014, Thupstan Chhewang had been elected on a BJP ticket.

The fact that so many Independent candidates win in Ladakh, says Leh-based journalist Rinchen Angmo, indicates that voters of Ladakh support contestants on the basis of issues and not political affiliation.

Angmo also pointed out that while the trends pointed to the victory of a Muslim candidate this time, as a Buddhist one was elected in 2014, the process of prediction could only begin once the name of candidates are announced.

The author is a Ludhiana-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com.

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Updated Date: Mar 30, 2019 19:21:32 IST