The alliance of the National Conference and the Congress has swept the elections to the hill council in Kargil district of Ladakh, winning 22 of the 26 seats that went to polls.

The victory of the alliance is not surprising, given the widespread discontent in Kargil against the scrapping of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status under Article 370 and its separation from the erstwhile state. But few had anticipated the scale of the mandate. The National Conference won 12 seats, and the Congress 10 seats. Only 16 are needed to form a majority in the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council.

The Bharatiya Janata Party won two seats, improving its tally by one. Independents, too, have won two seats. In the 30-member hill council, four seats – reserved for women and minorities – are nominated by the government.

This was the first elections held in Kargil, after Ladakh was carved out as a Union territory from the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019.

Voters queue up on October 4 for the polls to 26 seats of the Kargil hill council. Credit: PTI.

A symbolic election

The National Conference and the Congress entered a pre-poll alliance in a contest that was pitched as an election to decide whether the people of Kargil “accept or reject the decisions of August 5, 2019”.

While the Bharatiya Janata Party has never been a big player in Kargil politics, the National Conference and Congress alliance was meant to send a larger message. Both parties are members of the newly formed pan-India Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance or INDIA.

“This result sends a message to all forces and parties that have, undemocratically and unconstitutionally, divided the state of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh without the consent of its people,” Omar Abdullah, former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister and vice-president of National Conference, wrote on the social media platform X, formerly Twitter, once the results were declared on Sunday.

Until 2019, hill council elections in both Leh and Kargil used to be local affairs, with no interest beyond Ladakh’s borders.

The recent elections, however, took on a symbolic charge given that Ladakh was turned into a Union territory without a legislature by the Centre’s decisions in August 2019. For many candidates, the hill council election became a proxy to an assembly election.

“We do not have an assembly now where our MLAs will raise our concerns,” said Abdul Wahid of National Conference, who won the Bhimbat hill council seat in Drass sub-division of Kargil district on Sunday. “We only had this option to raise our voice about the events of August 5, 2019. We could not let it go.”

In elections rallies and meetings, Wahid said, the alliance’s candidates “spoke about bifurcation, loss of Article 370 and statehood.”

The parties appeared to have tapped into a vocal desire of the Muslim-majority Kargil to be reunited with Kashmir valley. Not for no reason did the National Conference use a famous Urdu poem – ‘Lehraye Kashmir Ke Jhandey’ – written in praise of Kashmiri nationalism in the early 1950s to mobilise voters in election rallies.

The Kargil results bear a striking similarity with the first elections held in the Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir.

In the absence of Assembly elections, the deep anger against the scrapping of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and statehood was reflected in the results to the district development council elections held in November-December 2020 in Kashmir. Voters overwhelmingly backed parties who had opposed the reshaping of the erstwhile state in 2019.

Banners of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Kargil. The party won two seats, improving its tally by one. Credit: Safwat Zargar.

An effective alliance

As Sunday’s results showed, the alliance of the National Conference and the Congress yielded rich dividends.

Seventy per cent of the National Conference candidates won electoral contests, followed by 45% Congress candidates.

In nine seats, where it felt its direct contest was with the Bharatiya Janata Party, the alliance fielded a joint candidate. They won eight of the nine seats.

In four seats where it sensed that the BJP might be tacitly supporting independent candidates, the alliance followed the same strategy of fielding a joint candidate. Again, all four constituencies went to the alliance.

The parties, however, misjudged the electoral pulse in the Stakchay Khangral constituency, a constituency with a significant Buddhist population.

Both National Conference and Congress had fielded their own candidates against the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Padma Dorjey. The Bharatiya Janata Party won this seat for the first time.

Dorjey had won the seat after polling 1,007 votes. However, the consolidated votes polled in favour of the National Conference and Congress candidates in the constituency added up to 1,309.

The BJP also retained Cha constituency in Buddhist-majority Zanskar valley – the only seat it had won in 2018 hill council elections.

Fewer independent winners

Traditionally, in every hill council election in Kargil, a significant number of independent candidates are voted in. It was not uncommon for them to lend their support to different parties eventually.

In the 2013 Kargil hill council elections, for example, a total of eight independent candidates were elected. Similarly in the 2018 polls, five seats went to independents. However, in the latest elections, only two independents managed to win.

“This could be due to the perception fuelled by the National Conference and Congress that the independents may actually be proxies of the BJP,” said a lawyer from Kargil, who did not want to be identified.

Polling for 26 seats of the Kargil hill council elections was held on October 4. Around 78% of the total 95,388 voters cast their franchise. A total of 85 candidates, including 25 independents, were in the fray.

Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of the story said the National Conference-Congress alliance won all nine seats in which it fielded a joint candidate. This has been corrected.