Will protests in Ladakh hurt BJP in Lok Sabha polls?

Sonam Wangchuk has been leading the agitation for statehood and a Sixth Schedule

ladakh-protest-wangchuk (Left) Sonam Wangchuk with protesters; a march by agitators in Ladakh | via X

The recent surge in protests in Ladakh for the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution to secure land, culture, and identity has implications for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.

Despite initial optimism after the establishment of Ladakh as a separate Union Territory (UT) on August 5, 2019, disillusionment quickly set in as locals feared exploitation and demographic shifts, with the protection previously enjoyed under Article 370 no longer existing.

What began as a demand for inclusion under the Sixth Schedule has evolved into a broader spectrum of aspirations, including full statehood, job reservations, and land protection.

The demands reflect the deep-seated concerns of the Ladakhis regarding their autonomy and well-being.

The rare unity exhibited by political parties in Leh and Kargil, as demonstrated by the alliance between the Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA) and the Leh Apex Body (LAB), presents a challenge for the BJP.

The BJP's electoral promises, particularly regarding the implementation of the Sixth Schedule, now face scrutiny in the face of mounting discontent.

The BJP's electoral success in Ladakh, notably securing the Ladakh seat in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, was partly attributed to promises of addressing Ladakh's grievances, including the demand for a UT status.

Observers believe that the BJP's inability to address Ladakh's concerns may result in disillusionment among voters, leading to a loss of electoral support in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. The BJP controls the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC)-Leh while the LAHDC-Kargil is with the coalition of the Congress and the NC.

The high-powered committee formed by the Ministry of Home Affairs under Minister of State for Home Nityanand Rai has held several rounds of meetings with the members of LAB and KDA to resolve the matter. The committee has appreciated the concerns of the people of Ladakh to preserve its unique identity but refused to commit to a statehood and Sixth Schedule.

Leading climate change activist Sonam Wangchuk has been at the forefront of agitation in Ladakh to press for the demand for statehood and a Sixth Schedule for the region. In March, he observed a 21-day hunger strike to highlight the threat to Ladakh’s environment and the need for statehood and a Sixth Schedule for the region. Actor Prakash Raj flew to Leh to show solidarity with him. After the hunger strike, Wangchuck called for the ‘Pashmina March’ on April 7 to raise awareness about the loss of land to industrial projects in the south and “Chinese encroachments’’ in the north in Ladakh. The march was called off after the UT administration imposed curbs in Leh and a ban on the assembly of people under Section 144. The authorities also shut down the internet.

The opposition Congress has been quick to cash in on the growing disenchantment against the BJP by supporting the agitation.

Congress leader Tsering Dorjay said the people are upset with the BJP. He said Wangchuk’s campaign has mobilised people to press for the demand for statehood and the Sixth Schedule.

“The BJP leaders have stayed away from his campaign and the people have taken note of that,’’ he said. “This raises questions about the BJP's commitment to Ladakh”.

He said the BJP faces a tough political challenge for not honouring its commitments. “The BJP secured some votes from Kargil in 2019, but this support is expected to diminish by 70 to 80 per cent due to the BJP's anti-minority stance,’’ he said. The Congress is sensing an opportunity in the growing anger in Ladakh against the BJP. The NC and the Congress, both members of the INDIA bloc, secured a majority in the LAHDC-Kargil polls in October last year. Omar Abdullah, NC vice president and former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, in an interview with THE WEEK, said his party will support the Congress in Ladakh against the BJP. He said he hoped a candidate who is supported by all is given the mandate in Ladakh.

Observers believe that the BJP's problems will be exacerbated if the LAB and KDA decide to join forces against the BJP in Lok Sabha polls.

According to sources, while Wangchuck may not directly enter the electoral fray, he may suggest supporting a party committed to implementing the Sixth Schedule, albeit indirectly. This strategy aims to ensure that his cause remains relevant.

Sajad Kargili of KDA said people are upset with the BJP, and that they will express their anger through votes. Will LAB and KDA field a joint candidate? “The possibility cannot be ruled out. Talks on the matter are ongoing," he said.

Local BJP leaders agree that they are facing issues on the ground but are optimistic that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government will act to safeguard the region. BJP state president Phunchok Stanzin said all concerns will be addressed.

“The government has made the Ladakh Resident Certificate compulsory for jobs. Likewise, the Centre will safeguard our identity and environment through some provision, whether it is the Sixth Schedule or Article 371,” he said.

He said there has been a lack of cooperation from stakeholders. Rejecting the immediate possibility of statehood, he said declaring two districts as a separate state is not feasible. “Regarding safeguards, it was noted that the Sixth Schedule does not align with Ladakh's requirements, particularly in terms of Panchayats, which do not exist under the Sixth Schedule,’’ he said. “The BJP has expressed willingness to meet all demands but outside the framework of the Sixth Schedule.” He said the agitation was politically motivated, with support from regional parties and Congress for political gains.

“It will not harm the BJP's electoral prospects,’’ he said, and added Wangchuk's campaign will have minimal impact. He said Home Minister Amit Shah has expressed a willingness to incorporate beneficial aspects of the Sixth Schedule, even if it requires constitutional amendments. “The BJP is committed to providing constitutional safeguards for land, jobs, and identity, but the LAB and KDA are adamant on the term 'Sixth Schedule'," he said.

He said the BJP's support base and workers remain intact, with no significant issues. Regarding the possibility of a joint candidate from KDA and LAB, he said it was unlikely due to serious differences between the two factions - religious and otherwise.

“People of Ladakh are witnessing development and progress after the region became a UT,’’ he said. “The BJP has nothing to fear.”    

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