A region in Jammu and Kashmir, which used to witness enthusiasm among locals towards electoral process, seems indifferent to the polls this time. A section of locals believe they have been betrayed by the political parties and now, they would cast their vote for a local face. The largest parliamentary constituency in J&K, in terms of area – Ladakh – will go on to polls on May 6. Spread across Leh and Kargil, Ladakh Lok Sabha constituency has 559 polling stations – 294 for Leh and 265 for Kargil, respectively – set up for 1,71,819 voters.
In 2014, for the first time, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had won by a narrow margin of 36 votes but has failed to make any significant inroads. The first setback to BJP came after the resignation of the sitting MP Thupstan Chhewang in November 2018 over the party’s “unfulfilled promises” and “betrayal”. Chhewang is a respected figure and has a large following among the Buddhist community. He had also served as the president of the Ladakh Buddhist Association. The second setback to the BJP as well as the dejection of the locals came to the fore when the party failed to even grab a single seat in Kargil and Leh civic body polls in October 2018. While Congress grabbed all the 13 seats in Leh and 6 seats in Kargil.
This time, a fresh and independent voice has come into the electoral fray – Sajjad Hussain. Formerly a journalist, Sajjad had moved back to Kargil in 2009 after completing his studies. Since then, he has been engaging with people in his home district. All the major political parties in Jammu and Kashmir have shown their support to Sajjad including Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) and National Conference (NC).
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Meanwhile, Congress has nominated Rigzin Splabar, who was two-time chief executive councillor (CEC) of Ladakh Autonomus Hill Development Council (LAHDC), Leh. BJP has nominated the current CEC of LAHDC, Leh, Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, popularly known as JTN. Besides, Asgar Ali Karbalai, a Congress-backed independent candidate is contesting from Kargil. He has served twice as the CEC of LAHDC, Kargil.
LAHDC is an Autonomous Hill Council that administers the Leh and Kargil districts.
Construction of a 14-kilometer long tunnel at Zojilla pass on the Srinagar-Kargil-Leh highway was one of the primary poll promises by the BJP. The highway holds immense importance, as it would provide year-round connectivity to the landlocked area, which remains cut off from the rest of the state for one season due to snowfall at the pass.
Speaking to NewsClick, a resident of Kargil, Achey Marjuma said, “The recent unfair treatment meted out to the people of Kargil is the main reason why we won’t go for BJP. The reasons include the tendering of Zojilla tunnel contract to a defective company, the unexpected centralisation of the divisional status towards Leh due to which the entire district was shut down for days and also, the attempt to deprive equal share of the University facilities.”
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Thousands of protesters had come out on the roads to prevent the entry of the new Divisional Commissioner of Ladakh, Saugat Biswas, in the town. The people of Kargil saw this decision as an attempt to invoke 1979, when Kargil was a part of the Leh district. A resident, on condition of anonymity, said, “Better to keep us with Kashmir then making us a part of Leh. It’s of no benefit to us.”
Residents of Kargil explicitly expressed their dejection with the BJP’s “empty rhetoric,” paving way for the independent candidates to prove their candidacy. Another resident said, “We are suspicious of all the political parties. All the successive political parties have failed us, we will rather go for an independent fresh face.”
The Anjuman Jamiatul Ulama Islamia School, Kargil, the largest religious organisation has shown its support for Sajjad Hussain, while the Imam Khoemani Memorial trust has supported Asgar Ali Karbalai. “There is going to be a close fight between the both, but if you believe me Karbalai is a proxy candidate of Congress to divide the vote as we had boycotted political parties,” said a resident.
Sajjad Hussain told NewsClick, “This is for the first time that an independent candidate has been supported by all the major political parties. Morever, Islamia school, Buddhist communities and residents of Leh have also extended their support to me. I am overwhelmed and don’t want to disappoint them. I believe in engagement and upholding humanitarian values.”
No headway in the poll promise of granting Union Territory status by BJP has created disgruntlement among the people. Yet, there is a section who wants to go for the BJP’s newly nominated face JTN. Psemang Nureoo, a research scholar and resident of Leh said, “JTN belongs to a humble and non-elitist background. Choosing him as a candidate has benefitted BJP as he enjoys the good will of the people. Moreover, allotment of the cluster university and divisional headquarters has changed the perception of a section of locals towards BJP. However, one must remember that these decisions were taken in emergency when they thought that they are losing Leh and when there was governor’s rule. Governor Satya Pal Malik is also a former BJP member.”
In December 2018, State Administrative Council (SAC) headed by Governor Satya Pal Malik had sanctioned the first ever cluster University for the area. The same decision had triggered protests in neighbouring Kargil.
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But there are locals who still believe BJP is dangerous for their region. “Because of BJP, even RSS has started making inroads in the region and that’s a dangerous situation. The narrative has been shifted and the party is trying to deepen an already existing divide between Kargil and Leh. However, there are other important demands which haven’t been fulfilled like development of health sector and phone connectivity in the remotest areas,” said another resident of Leh, Stanzin.
Another resident said, “Resignation of Chhewang was a huge setback for the BJP. Chhewang has taken with himself a section of people who won’t vote for BJP anymore. JTN is a new face and has no political experience. Although, he is a good orator but there arre less chances that he will get major votes.”
After gauging the people’s mood in both districts of Kargil and Leh, it seems that anti-BJP sentiment has intensified owing to the long slew unfulfilled promises. With the polling day just few days away, it is to be seen whose prospects find its way in the region.