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Divided Buddhist votes may hit poll results in Northern Kashmir

Both Congress vice-president Rahul and BJP’s PM candidate Modi are scheduled to campaign in Ladakh, which goes to polls on May 7.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Apr 28, 2014, 12.15 PM IST
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Both Congress vice-president Rahul and BJP’s PM candidate Modi are scheduled to campaign in Ladakh, which goes to polls on May 7. 
Both Congress vice-president Rahul and BJP’s PM candidate Modi are scheduled to campaign in Ladakh, which goes to polls on May 7. 
SRINAGAR: Hazarding a guess about who will win the Leh and Kargil Lok Sabha seats is probably as tricky as negotiating Ladakh’s tortuous terrain because polarisation within and between Buddhists and Muslims in this northern-most part of Kashmir runs deep.

Over the next one week, both Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi and BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi are scheduled to campaign in Ladakh, which goes to polls on May 7. The region is fielding four candidates, representing 159,631 voters spread across the desert districts of Leh and Kargil. Rahul is flying in on April 29 to campaign for the party candidate Tsering Samphel. Modi follows on May 4 to campaign for Thupstan Chhewang.

But the two Buddhist candidates are not alone. They have two Shia Muslims—Ghulam Raza and Syed Qasim Sabri, from Kargil, 235 km from Leh—in the ring too. Under the Congress-National Conference coalition arrangement, Ladakh was given to Congress. But the decision makers ignored the reality that Leh and Kargil have fought pitched battles to retain the Lok Sabha seat.

Given the narrow differences between voters of the two districts, it has always been tricky to contest and win. So far, Congress has represented it six times, NC twice and independents thrice. The two districts appear to have evolved an interesting modus operandi to flout party dictates. If a party picks a candidate from Leh, Kargil reacts and vice versa. Leh did it once and Kargil twice.

In 2009, Kargil’s independent candidate Ghulam Hassan Khan (who later joined NC), defeated Congress’ P Namgyal by a narrow margin of just 3,600 votes. History seems to be repeating itself. Peeved over the coalition fielding a Buddhist, Kargil Congress asked its former district president and lawmaker Ghulam Raza to resign and contest independently.

Kargil’s anti-Congress lobby took it as party’s strategy to reduce the impact of Muslim vote and make Samphel win. They fielded another candidate, Agha Syed Qasim Sabri. In Kargil, political decisions are mostly taken by two religious institutions: the Khomanie Trust and the Islamia School. The Khomanie Trust is a sort of neo-liberal thought that is currently dominated by the Congress, but the all-powerful Islamia School is controlled by the Aghas, the town’s most influential clan.

That makes Raza a Lilliput and Sabri a candidate to be reckoned with due to Aghas’ backing. Analysts say that Leh faces a similar situation. After Congress fielded its district president, T Samphel , BJP’s Thupstan Chhewang joined the fray. Given the influence the two candidates have, Buddhist vote is divided.

"Voter is confused because both are equally good," said Dorjey Wangchuk , an official. "Thupstan , however, is enjoying a better standing than Samphal because he has been there for a long time; he commands respect and has some contribution as well."

Scion of Leh’s Raja family that ruled the region for the long time, Thupstan’s wife Sarla is still considered the Queen of Ladakh. Thupstan shot into prominence when, as head of the Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA), he spearheaded a communal agitation that eventually led to the creation of Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) in 1995. He headed the Council till he was elected to Parliament in 2004. Then, he was contesting as a candidate of Ladakh Union Territory Front (LUTF).

Thupstan’s politics revolve around converting Ladakh into a Union territory and he has managed to get this slogan back on the street. Key observers say it was a mistake of the part of Congress. "It was initially Congress that announced they will get UT to Ladakh," political activist Feroz Ahmad , said. "The announcement was fiercely reacted to by PCC chief Prof Saif ud Din Soz, saying UT was not part of the Congress manifesto . Then NC and PDP reacted fiercely to it."

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