The Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council for Kargil (LAHDC–K) generated significant national curiosity. This was surprising because the elections were held in the wake of the Canada-India diplomatic row, the announcement of the dates for five State Assembly elections, and the gravity of the Hamas-Israel war.
The election may have generated interest also because, reportedly, its results were startling enough to have perturbed the local administration. The BJP’s ambitions for several more seats in the Kargil Council were not to be. The combine of the J&K National Conference (NC) and Indian National Congress (Congress) won 22 of a total of 26 elected seats. The BJP won just 2 seats and independents garnered the remaining 2. The voter turnout was a very healthy 78 per cent.
It was an emphatic qualitative response to the chasm between the BJP’s promises and deliveries from Kargil’s quantitatively tiny demography of 150,000 citizens. The victory was remarkable because the winners managed to shift the discourse to issues of constitutional and political autonomy, ruining the BJP government’s undisguised and unapologetic attempts to bury politics under local rivalries and other whataboutery.
Leaving aside, for a moment, the question of whether the BJP has delivered on its promises of economic prosperity and infrastructure development, the stark takeaway from the victory of this trans-Himalayan sliver in the INDIA bloc is this: voters can transcend ambiguous polemic to demonstrate the power of a potent idea—that all politics is local.
Ladakh proved the truth of this maxim by forging a home-grown internal unity that focused on the issues of the loss of basic rights, such as employment, local identity, and land ownership. The BJP had expected to harvest the gains from its successful delivery of Union Territory status for Ladakh. But four years down the line it discovered that there is deep dissatisfaction in Ladakh about what that actually delivered.
Anatomy of a failure
The Kargil election results prove that the dissension within constituent parts of the former J&K State against New Delhi has spread from Kashmir, its most politically informed and vocal segment, to Ladakh and possibly to Jammu, although that demands a separate analysis. Regardless, the spread of dissent to Ladakh is bad enough because, for the past 70 years, New Delhi has focused efforts on controlling the narrative by alienating, blaming, and demonizing the ethno-linguistic valley of Kashmir as the fount of all the problems in the former State. The Kargil Council election result is the first to push back on that. Indications are that Leh district will follow suit. It is important to understand why.
First, in addition to dismantling the State, the BJP’s August 2019 action also disassembled intra-State political coordination, economic synergies, and employment prospects for the region’s youth. So much so that it would not be surprising if the political, business and job-ready audience of Ladakh all seek electoral redress in the 2024 general election season.
Second, and more importantly, what tipped the scales in the Kargil Council elections was a surprising unity between Leh and Kargil which had been drifting apart politically for over 40 years now. This drift was exemplified by Leh’s greeting of the BJP’s grant of Union Territory status on August 5, 2019, with drumbeats and sweets. Kargil received it with scepticism, not least because they suspected it would formalise Leh’s outmoded domination of Kargil. However, Leh’s doubts about the BJP’s intentions had surfaced well before 2019.
Almost exactly a year before that date, Thupstan Chhewang, Ladakh’s most experienced, seasoned, and respected politician suddenly resigned from the Lok Sabha and his BJP membership. His reason for it was telling. He doubted the BJP’s sincerity in delivering on Leh’s political requirements. Looking back, that event facilitated conversations between Leh and Kargil.
Consultations among the representatives of the two districts between 2019 and 2021 convinced both districts that the institution of UT did not mean a devolution of powers. They saw that it meant the opposite. In practical terms, it was a classic case of upward self-delegation of decision-making processes by New Delhi. Most damagingly for the BJP, Ladakhis discovered that their land rights and employment opportunities would be decided by New Delhi. The pushback was overt, vocal, and radical.
On August 1, 2021, in a surprise development, the leaders of Leh and Kargil closed ranks to form a united front, even while maintaining the option of group autonomy between the two districts. It was a stunning display of democratic decentralisation between the districts. This unity pact yielded an ongoing and lasting dialogue between the two districts that resulted in protests stretching from the streets of Leh and Kargil to New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar. The speeches during these protest rallies were peppered with anecdotes about the sacrifices of Ladakhi youths, from Leh and Kargil, during India’s several wars and skirmishes with Pakistan and China. Unlike in the rest of the country, this presented a unique conundrum for those seeking to label legitimate dissent by citizens of an acutely sensitive borderland as being “anti-India”.
There were other, extra-regional developments, that also spurred the Congress-NC victory. Despite the separation of Ladakh from J&K, the National Conference successfully asserted its right to participate in the 2023 Kargil Council elections and mobilise its cadre there. Meanwhile, Congress nurtured the single parliamentary constituency there. These developments are worth unpacking to understand the wider takeaways.
The larger takeaways
As vote banks in India go, Kargil is a tiny constituency that barely registers a blip. However, this election holds some important lessons, and not just for giant slaying. Succinctly put, Kargil’s citizens privileged quality over quantity. Three qualitative factors might be singled out.
First, and to repeat, Ladakh’s voters understood the meaning of the maxim, “all politics is local”. Rahul Gandhi’s visits to Leh and Kargil as part of his Bharat Jodo Yatra made a significant difference. More important was his political deportment. In most public interactions, he barely mentioned the Council election. Instead, his messaging dwelt mostly on the Congress party’s vision for India and how it is different from the BJP’s well-known aspirations.
The Congress functionaries accompanying Rahul Gandhi also did not interfere. Decisions about candidates and local issues were left to Ladakhis to discuss and determine. The NC leadership followed suit, basically ensuring a secular message, and aligning its cadre with the objectives of the INDIA grouping. All this marked a departure from former interventions by non-local party officials. It transcended the habituated formula of politics-as-usual, and conveyed a nuanced tilt that was subliminally attractive to voters.
Second, there were a series of strong linkages that forged a solid chain that helped the victory: a local one between Kargil and Leh, a regional one between Ladakh and Kashmir, and a national one initiated in New Delhi. The last is illustrated by that fact that Congress workers from Leh joined their Kargil counterparts in the electioneering. It was an alliance between multiple regions with autonomous needs yet with a common programme based on principles. It could well be a model for good politics in India.
Third, the residual benefits of good politics was illustrated between the lines of the Kargil elections by the amicable resolution of a 60-year-old controversy about Leh’s Buddhist aspirations to build a monastery in Kargil town. The conflict threatened political exploitation and religious friction. In a unique turn of events for our times, the conflict was resolved through a quiet Leh–Kargil dialogue that resulted in the provision of additional land for a monastery near Kargil and a sarai within the town, evoking the traditional praxis of facilitating the comfort of travellers from Leh through Kargil en route to Kashmir, Zangskar, or other points.
A political irony, finally, in the results of the Kargil elections is this: the BJP’s dismantlement of the former J&K State and its inability to manage the resultant disassembling of its institutions has unwittingly created a solidarity that stretches from trans-Himalayan Ladakh to New Delhi and back to Srinagar.
Siddiq Wahid, from Ladakh, is Distinguished Professor at the School of Humanities & Social Sciences at Shiv Nadar University (Institute of Excellence), where he teaches Central Eurasian history in the Department of International and Governance Studies. He is Adjunct Fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies in New Delhi.