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Vote for separation from J&K

Students bring out a procession in Leh urging people to vote. Picture by Sudeshna Banerjee

With snow-capped peaks playing peekaboo at every turn of the road and average day temperatures veering around 10 degrees Celsius, the heat of electioneering is hardly apparent at an altitude of 12,000ft.

But India’s highest Lok Sabha constituency is gearing up for a critical battle on May 7.

Sanam Tashi is busy tilling his field with two hairy dzos that are a cross between a yak and a cow.

Julley,” he cries out a salutation in the local Bodhi language to a stranger clicking his picture, adding in the same breath: “Jai Hind.”

The listener’s startled expression prompts him to add with a toothy smile: “Aap bhi Indian, hum bhi Indian (You are Indian, so am I).”

Marginalised in this remote corner of the country, the inhabitants are prone to underlining the obvious. As he takes a breather from sowing wheat in the single-crop land, Tashi is joined by two other farm hands.

“Everyone has forgotten us but Modi will change that. Modi will give us UT (Union territory status),” the 72-year-old says as the others nod their assent.

“Vote for change; UT for Ladakh,” is the slogan the BJP hopes will turn its trump card. It already has a strong candidate in Thupstan Chhewang, formerly an Independent MP who is a champion of Ladakh’s longstanding demand for Union territory status and is admired for his integrity.

“He was an MP; he also was the hill council chief for years. But look at his house --- he has not made money,” Tashi certifies.

Flanked by pictures of Narendra Modi and Chhewang, a hoarding bearing the “UT” slogan is a screaming presence on the wall of the BJP office at the busy Main Bazaar crossing in Leh. Just back from a road show, Chhewang, 67, looks confident but is not ready to relax. “It will be a tough contest,” he says candidly.

The Ladakh constituency has four Assembly segments: Leh, Kargil, Nubra and Zanskar. The last two being sparsely populated, it is Buddhist-dominated Leh and Muslim-dominated Kargil that play kingmakers between them.

This time, both the BJP and the Congress have fielded a Buddhist from Leh. But that hardly makes it a direct fight. Two Independent candidates are likely to muscle into the electoral calculations.

Divided Cong

Lotus in ice: A BJP flag flutters atop the Khardung La Pass, one of the highest motorable roads in the world which falls under the Ladakh constituency. Picture by Sudeshna Banerjee

But they are a bigger headache for Congress candidate Tsering Samphel, whose party office is just three buildings away from Chhewang’s.

Samphel’s candidature had put paid to months of lobbying by Haji Asghar Karbalae, the chief executive councillor of the Congress-run Kargil Autonomous Hill Development Council.

The discontent in the Congress ranks in Kargil erupted with its district committee president Ghulam Raza quitting the party. He is contesting as an Independent with the support of Karbalae, who is the face of the influential Imam Khomuni Memorial Trust.

The other player in the four-cornered fight is Saza Syed Mohd Kazim, backed by the Islamia School Kargil.

“All Muslim voters in Kargil are attached to one or the other of these two socio-religious organisations,” explains Chhewang.

Worsening matters for the Congress, the National Conference is backing Kazim as well. Omar Abdullah’s party may be adjusting seats with the Congress in some areas of the state but not in Ladakh.

Asked about the rebellion in the party, Samphel admits that “polarisation is deep”.

“I had met him (Karbalae) and called on every organisation in Kargil. Butů” the 66-year-old stops, adding after a pause: “It is unfortunate that the NC is not supporting me.”

So, the one-term Congress MLA from the pre-militancy days who boasts of being a party member for 46 years is banking on home turf Leh. His mainstay is the local MLA, Rigzin Jora, currently the urban development minister in Omar’s government.

“My colleagues have done excellent work,” he says, talking of the MLA as well as members of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council. “Our party has won 22 of the 26 seats in the hill council.”

That’s why his posters carry the poll plank: “Prosperity and development”.

But which holds the bigger allure: prosperity or the tag of Union territory?

Better days

Things have indeed looked up in Leh although few care to give any credit to the Congress or the National Conference.

“Earlier, we had power for barely two hours a day. The Alchi hydel project on the Indus used to generate barely 5MW daily. Now it’s gone up to 15MW. We have far fewer power cuts,” says tour operator Phuntsog Dorjan.

There’s hope in the air. The two highways connecting Ladakh to Srinagar and Manali are still closed but the Ladakhis are subsisting on stored supplies.

“Earlier, we had nothing coming in for six months. Now the army provides 3kg of mixed vegetable packets per family, distributed weekly through cooperatives in the city,” says driver Nawang Tobu.

Tourists have already begun arriving, courtesy the morning flights. And it’s a matter of days before the highways open. The film 3 Idiots, shot partly in Ladakh, has done wonders in drawing domestic tourists. “This year business will be even better,” Dorjan sounds confident.

So, a vague promise of “development” is not enough. “We’ll vote for whoever gives us UT status. The money from the Centre will come to us directly then, and we’ll no longer be at the mercy of Srinagar,” says hotelier Tsewang Dorje.

His second concern is the opening of the route to Manas Sarovar in Tibet. “Pilgrims now need to trek for days through Uttarakhand. But in Ladakh, we have motorable roads through the border at Denchok,” Dorje says.

If the route is opened, “our tourism season will get extended”, the hotelier says. “All they need to do is build a bridge over the Indus.”

Chhewang has his ear pressed to the ground. Access to Manas Sarovar and inclusion of the Bodhi language in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution are the other issues he is highlighting.

But the priority is Union territory status. “It’s an emotional issue for us,” he says.

12-year battle

The battle had begun in 2002 with the formation of the Ladakh Union Territory Forum.

“All of us quit our respective parties and formed this organisation to fight together. Even Jora (state minister from the Congress) was with us then,” recalls the BJP candidate.

Chhewang, who was then the chief executive councillor of the hill council, became MP riding the Forum wave in 2004. The Forum swept the hill council elections too. But the Congress launched a revival, luring away some of the Forum’s key leaders.

Some local people suspect foul play in the sudden switchovers. The result was a crushing defeat for the Forum in the hands of the Congress in the 2010 hill council elections. Chhewang himself lost in the Assembly elections.

He joined the BJP three years ago when Rajnath Singh, he says, promised to back the Union territory demand during a visit here.

Possibly sensing the mood, the Congress in Leh claimed at a rally in April that the Union territory demand was part of their candidate’s manifesto.

But People’s Democratic Party leader Mehbooba Mufti picked up the issue, accusing the Congress of “playing divisive politics” and arguing that such a move would dilute the state’s special status under Article 370.

State Congress president Saifuddin Soz publicly clarified that the demand “was not in the party’s manifesto but was a local demand”.

That has forced Samphel on the back foot.

A vote for ‘brother’

About 110km from Leh and near the Chinese border, not far from Pangong Lake where Kareena Kapoor had chased Aamir Khan in 3 Idiots, lies the hamlet of Tangste where polling would take place at a height of 14,100ft. Here, an elderly Konchok Tharchin runs a ramshackle restaurant.

A “medical worker”, his is the door to knock on for the villagers. As a Congress campaign vehicle passes by, he says simply: “I will vote for my brother. He will be good for us.”

The BJP candidate, though no relation of his, is the “brother” he is talking of.

“The Congress has been fooling the people of Ladakh on this issue. This time they have been exposed,” says Chhewang. He says he is not worried about the two Independent candidates.

Kargil has about 80,500 voters, but their votes will get divided between the two Independents. So the strategy is to milk the Leh vote bank of 79,000-odd. The people seem to be aware of that.

Buddhist religious organisations and the students of at least half-a-dozen schools held a long march on May 3, urging people to vote. The Leh Motorcycle Rental Association has put up banners in the market area with the same plea.

Former BJP president Nitin Gadkari held a huge rally at the town’s biggest venue, the Leh polo ground, on Sunday. The BJP is sensing more than a fair chance in India’s northernmost corner.

Leh votes on May 7