Amid BJPs media blitzkrieg that it would change history by attempting 44 seats in state assembly, required to form the government, Prime Minister Narendra Modi graced Ladakh, only to devour the party’s chances of getting the one seat from the region that it accidently won in Lok Sabha, reports R S Gull
The erstwhile desert kingdom rooted with Tibet in faith and culture was brutally annexed to a heterogeneous J&K by Dogra General Zorawar Singh. With silk route dead and new political borders choking the otherwise oxygen-deficient desert, the region has not given up its right to survive on its own terms. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi landed in the region, last week, the expectations were of Himalayan nature.
Reason was simple: an aggressive campaigning that touched the most sensitive and emotional issues gave BJP a foothold in a non-Muslim, non-Hindu belt which eventually led them representing it. The victory owed more to bickering in Kargil. For Modi visit, Kargil and Leh exhibited the traditional dichotomy in their expectations.
“We have very high expectations and I was just rewinding the tape records to listen BJP leader Gadkari’s speech (during campaigning) again in which he said Ladakh will be Union Territory (UT) within six months after BJP forming government,” Rigzin Spalbar, who heads Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) in Leh said. A Congressman, Spalbar was in Magnolia when the Prime Minister’s visit was finalized. He cut short his visit to host him. “I hope Modi does not mislead the gullible people of Ladakh as Nitin Gadkari did (during campaigning) and announces the UT status.”
After Leh got the LAHDC in 1995 after nearly six years of tensions that also envisaged a communal crisis, they seek UT status as to get “free” from Kashmir “control”. All the parties want it. But given the impossibility of any government agreeing to it, Congress withdrew the demand from its poll plank during Lok Sabha that encouraged BJP to cash on it. Given Thusptan Chhewang being the major votaries of the demand since his LBA days, it added credibility to the campaign and encouraged Buddhists to vote for him.
Chhewang, the MP is now slightly defensive. “I am confident that something will happen,” Chhewang told reporters. “This is an issue linked with the Article 370 giving J&K a special status and the party has already stated that it will open a discussion within the stakeholders.” Policy initiatives, he said, do not take place overnight. “We cannot expect all the things happening just now as the government has not completed even the first three months in office.”
Nawang Rigzin Jora, region’s senior most minister in Omar Abdullah government and once the closest Chhewang boys, knows the limitations of any government. His expectations were possible and within the realm of Modi’s developmental agenda. Jora put security on top priority and wanted a halt to the frequent incursions into Ladakh. Apart from a women’s battalion for the region’s ‘hardy’ female population, added connectivity with Himachal through another impassable pass, Jora wanted a Modi promise that UPA initiated projects (five major roads, a tunnel and a solar energy initiative) are put on fast forward mode.
Besides, he wants a small policy intervention. UPA government had announced harvesting 3000 MW of solar energy from Leh and 2500 MWs from Kargil. Equipments apart, the ambitious initiative requires lots of land. “We want the central government introduce a clause that will help the state get royalty from the projects as land is the state share and that money must go to the LAHDCs in Kargil and Leh,” Jora said. “Making this happen requires a policy intervention which he must do for the larger good of the region.”
Both the districts were unanimous on two things: a university and a medical college. But expectations varied in Kargil greatly. “We are fundamentally against any intervention that will lead to the division of the state,” Asgar Karbalaie, the head of LAHDC in Kargil said. “J&K was divided once and we do not seek any more divisions. We only want the special status of the state must continue but every region should get its share of it.”
Apart from seeking an employment and a financial package for the district, Karblaie said the district has two peculiar problems and both are connectivity related: the up-gradation of the vintage airport and fast forwarding the Zoji La tunnel. Interestingly, there were not many demanding the reopening of all-weather Kargil-Skardu road that would open up the town to its erstwhile winter capital.
Credit goes to Chief Minister Omar Abdullah for articulating the expectations of the two districts properly. In Leh, he wanted Modi to help improve the situation on tourist front and solar energy. In Kargil, he sought army’s de-occupation of a part of vast Khurbathong plateau that Kargil requires to breathe and expand. At both the places Omar emphasized over the connectivity improvement, both by air and road. That was precisely what the less-than-400-thousand population inhabiting two largest districts of India wanted.
As the Prime Minister Modi drove to the Polo Grounds in Goncha and Kantope after his Vanday Matram session with the armed forces, he had already lost part of the plot. While he attacked Pakistan’s “incapacity” to fight a war and condemned the continuation of proxy war (that triggered a diplomatic row), Modi missed a mention of Beijing that is part of Leh’s public discourse. Commoners in old town say it publicly that while the 1962 war marked an end of one of their trade routes to Tibet, the latest was the voluntary no-go to the smuggling on Sino-Indian line of actual control (LoAC) that sustained part of the local commerce. Once stuffed with Chinese products, Leh is perhaps the only Indian border town that lacks a “China Bazaar”. Delhi, they say, does not do its bit by not stopping incursions that have gradually threatened the livelihoods of Changthang herdsmen in Nubra belt.
With Tarun Vijay (the intellectual tackling Leh in BJP and an architect of Sindu Darshan) and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi (party Shia leader) in tow at Leh and Kargil, respectively, Modi played a narcissist preacher. Prime minister played an emotional chord with the people, both at Leh and later at Kargil. Invoking his worker days (in BJP and possibly in RSS), he played an emotional chord at both the places. “I am aware of the difficult life the people live here because I have frequently visited the place earlier,” Modi said in Leh. “In Delhi some families would approach me every now and then seeking Ladakhi vegetables which are always in demand. I would end up having more vegetables in my luggage than my own things.”
In Kargil, Modi referred to his visits during the 1999 war when people would refuse to take money for his food saying it is their contribution to the ‘national cause’. He remembered the day Kargil broke into ecstasy over the eviction of Pakistani troops from Tiger Hill. Crowds at both the places were receptive and engaging but the speeches were unimpressive in content. He praised the love people of the region have exhibited for him and promised he will “return the debt with interest.”
Cheering crowds in Leh returned home with things they already knew that they own: world highest number of light days in a year (Prakash), a fascinating but highly fragile ecology (Paryavaran) and a booming tourism (Paryatan). But they failed to understand the specifics that Modi had in mind in tapping the three, other than laying foundation stone of a transmission line that Ladakh leaders had delayed deliberately (they wanted the power stations to come up first) and throwing formally open NHPC’s two small power projects which are otherwise in generation for more than a year.
In Kargil, Modi linked the mountain resources with the hard life and the youth with unemployment and said energy must help the region to change.
Modi’s ‘fresh’ announcements were Rs 8000 crore for roads (actually Rs 8114 crore meant for additional budgetary support of four road stretches forming alternative highway including Jammu-Udhampur, Banihal-Qazigund, Srinagar-Qazigund and Chenani-Nashri which would now require Rs 28324.08 crore against earlier estimated of Rs 20210.10 crore and are otherwise at different stages of implementation), changing the life of people growing saffron and associated with Pashmina (already announced and one in progress) and waiving off Rs 60 crore of disputed interested to state from FCI. (It shocked many state officers who laughed at the announcement for a state spending Rs 36000 crore in a year and paying Rs 6000 crore plus taxes). Modi talked of connectivity but skipped offering details to the cheering crowds. His assertion that 20 per cent of J&K population was displaced is considered a Himalayan exaggeration. The newest things in Modi’s speech were his assertions that he would fight corruption by neither indulging into it nor permitting others to resort to it: “Na Khaoun Ga, Na Kisi Kou Khanay Dounga”. He exhibited a clear dichotomy on security and developmental issues and asserted his only prescription to all ills is the development. Invoking his experience of Kutch (Gujarat) where everybody was “spoiling time” in talking about Pakistan and border issues, Modi said he emphasized on progress which changed the profile of that district and is one of the fastest growing districts of India. “I have only one answer to all the queries whether in Leh, J&K or North East, it is development,” he said.
In such a situation, the high profile visit to the region was slightly less than a disaster, second in a row. An impressed audience in the two districts is unlucky to support the saffron brigade this fall when the state assembly goes to get its new flock of representatives. “We are a gullible lot. We were always told the stone gods are solid,” one middle rung officer said with mischievous smiles. “But this Hindutva idol sounded hallow.”
If street talk at ground zero is any pointer, then BJP should not count anything from Ladakh in its majority-target basket. Congress has already started taking the issues to the masses. Jora and Spalbar spend two days in Nubra belt. In Kargil, Congress may have to patch up within and “the specific vote” that managed victory of BJP in Lok Sabha will be tackled well before it becomes another embarrassment.