On October 26, the Bharatiya Janata Party emerged victorious in elections to the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council in Leh. With 15 out of 26 seats, however, the party won three less seats than in the last hill council elections, held in 2015. These were the first elections held after Ladakh became a Union Territory carved out of the old state of Jammu and Kashmir. Union Territory status has been a longstanding demand in Buddhist-majority Leh district.

The elections saw a fierce contest with the Congress, which improved its tally to nine seats. Independent candidates got two seats. Regional players such as the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party got no seats. Neither did the Aam Aadmi Party, which made its debut in Ladakh these elections. About 65% of the approximately 90,000-strong electorate had voted in Leh on October 22.

The elections were held in the backdrop of cross-border tensions with China in Eastern Ladakh. More crucially for local politics, they took place amid anxieties about losing special protections for Ladakhis as the Centre downgraded and divided the former state of Jammu and Kashmir.

“The BJP has won from rural and far-flung areas,” said Chozang Namgial, a young entrepreneur based in the town of Leh. “The urban and educated class in Leh didn’t vote for BJP, keeping in view the insecurities looming large over our identity, culture and jobs.” He pointed out that the two constituencies in Leh town had been won by the Congress.

The boycott that almost was

After August 5, 2019, when Ladakh became a Union Territory, it also lost special protections under Article 370 and Article 35A. The latter, especially, had ensured that land ownership rights and government jobs were reserved for the native population. Leaders in Leh demanded protections under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, which ensures a degree of autonomy for tribal areas. Over 97% of Ladakh’s population – 2.74 lakh according to the 2011 Census – belongs to tribal communities.

Social, religious and political parties, including the local BJP unit, in Leh came together to form the People’s Movement for Sixth Schedule for Ladakh. On September 22, days after election dates were made public, they announced a poll boycott until Sixth Schedule demands were met.

The Centre’s emissaries promptly landed in Leh to calm tempers. The boycott was called off after September 27, when leaders from Leh met Union Home Minister Amit Shah in Delhi. The Centre reportedly assured them that it was “open to discuss [sic] protections available under the 6th Schedule.”

But the boycott was called off with another caveat: talks about safeguards for Ladakh would start 15 days after the poll results.

Amit Shah meets leaders from Leh in September.

The anti-incumbency factor

The Centre’s assurances failed to convince sections of urban voters and the youth. “There’s definitely doubt about BJP, particularly among the youth,” said Namgial. “The thing is that whatever promises they made regarding securities and protections to the people of Leh still have not been met.”

Tashi Morup, a former journalist in Leh, also argued that the anti-incumbency fator might have worked against the BJP in some seats. “The BJP candidates who have lost in this election are those who have headed the hill council at the top most positions,” he explained. “Some of them have held such positions for more than two terms. In some way, they were veterans. I think, somewhere, the BJP didn’t give much thought about the candidate selection and people simply wanted to see some young faces elected to the council.”

Among the senior leaders who lost was Gyal P Wangyal, chief executive councillor in the previous hill council. He lost to the Congress’s Rigzin Tsering in Sakti constituency. According to Morup, most of the winning candidates in the recent elections were young faces.

But the BJP’s victory is also in keeping with historical trends. “From the start, the local election results have been determined by which party is in power at the Central or state level,” explained Tashi. “It’s the idea that a common government at the Central and local levels will be beneficial for the region.”

Winning Muslim-majority constituencies

The election results also held some surprises: the BJP won in the Muslim-dominated constituencies of Turtuk and Chuchot. The winning candidates were Ghulam Mehdi in Turtuk and Mirza Hussain in Chuchot. Mehdi had won the Turtuk seat as a National Conference candidate in 2015. This was the second time in the row that the saffron party won in Chuchot. The BJP’s victory caught many by surprise because the decisions of August 5, 2019, were widely seen as an attack on India’s only Muslim-majority state.

“Whatever atrocities or disempowerment of Muslims happened in the last 70 years happened under Congress” said a Muslim resident of Leh who did not want to be named. “That’s why Muslims in Turtuk decided to vote in favour of the BJP and give them a chance.”

In Chuchot, however, the large number of candidates might have fragmented the vote and helped the BJP. “There were nine candidates in the fray and the vote got divided, which eventually helped BJP,” he said. Hussain of the BJP defeated independent candidate Sayeeda Bano by a margin of just 735 votes.

‘All eyes on the Centre’

But the poll results are being viewed as the start of a longer political process. “Everyone is aware of the Centre’s promise of starting deliberations on Sixth Schedule status,” said a former councillor speaking off the record. “All eyes will now be on the Centre.”

Apart from protections, many feel the deliberations are essential to restoring the autonomy of the hill council, whose leaders had complained of being undermined by the Union Territory administration.

“Since we became a Union territory, the administration has held sway over all major affairs of governance and in a way have hollowed out the powers of the hill council,” said the former councillor. “So, to get back those powers and further empower the councils, the Sixth Schedule is necessary.”

He claimed that the Congress and the apex body of the People’s Movement for Sixth Schedule for Ladakh would start putting pressure on the Centre soon. “After 15 days, everybody will be waiting for the Centre’s response,” he said.