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Ladakh’s 2024 Election Verdict: Implications for India’s Domestic and Foreign Policy 

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Ladakh’s 2024 Election Verdict: Implications for India’s Domestic and Foreign Policy 

Independent candidate Mohmad Haneefa won by a record margin, ending the BJP’s decade of political dominance in Ladakh.

Ladakh’s 2024 Election Verdict: Implications for India’s Domestic and Foreign Policy 

Residents from Ladakh hold placards demanding statehood and other democratic rights for their region during a protest in New Delhi, India, Feb. 15, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Altaf Qadri

The parliamentary election in India’s strategic region of Ladakh on June 4, 2024, was a major disappointment for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had held the seat in the region for the past decade. Instead, independent candidate Mohmad Haneefa (48.2 percent of the vote) won by a massive margin of over 20 points, easily besting second-place finisher Tsering Namgyal of the Indian National Congress (27.6 percent) and more than doubling the vote share of the BJP’s Tashi Gyalson (23.6 percent). 

Haneefa’s landslide victory marked a crucial turn in the political landscape of Ladakh.

His historic win comes at a time when the region faces significant internal and external challenges. Internally, Ladakh has been protesting for constitutional safeguards since it was separated from the former state of Jammu and Kashmir 2019. Externally, it faces a looming threat from the unresolved China-India border dispute that escalated in the Galwan Valley in 2020, making it one of India’s most vulnerable and geopolitically significant border regions. 

As a founding member of the Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA), Haneefa helped articulate Ladakh’s four-point demands alongside the Leh Apex Body (LAB). These demands – statehood status, Sixth Schedule status, a public service commission, and additional representation in the upper house of India’s Parliament – were presented to New Delhi in numerous meetings, but consistently met with an impasse. During a meeting on March 4, 2024, India’s Home Minister Amit Shah outright rejected the demand for Sixth Schedule status for Ladakh. This was revealed on May 17, 2024, by Rigzin Jora, a veteran political leader and LAB member, during an election campaign, where he mentioned that Shah had asserted he would not grant the Sixth Schedule status even if Prime Minister Narendra Modi agreed.

The absence of the Sixth Schedule in the BJP’s 2024 regional manifesto, despite its inclusion in previous elections, led to the party’s downfall in the recent 2024 parliamentary election. The BJP managed to secure only 23 percent of the total vote share in a triangular contest with the Indian National Congress (INC) and independent candidates. The BJP’s dismal performance reflected the unmet aspirations of the people. Notably, among all the candidates, only Haneefa’s manifesto included the complete four-point demand of Ladakh. 

Ladakh has been in the international spotlight since it was separated from the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019. Despite opposition from Pakistan and China, India’s J&K Reorganization Act saw Jammu and Kashmir on one hand and Ladakh on the other established as two separate union territories. But the breaking news that made the most headlines internationally was the China-India border flare-up that began in 2020, which witnessed brutal clashes between soldiers from both sides in the Galwan Valley. This resulted in the creation of a buffer zone as a part of disengagement, which caused the loss of traditional grazing lands for nomadic villagers and patrolling points for the Indian Army. Despite numerous military-level meetings, the dispute remains unresolved

Not surprisingly, this insecurity among people has manifested in anti-incumbent sentiment. About 60 percent of votes went to INC candidate Tsering Namgyal in the eastern border villages of Changthang. 

Nationally, the prolonged tension and subsequent clashes at the China-India border, post-2020, is a security concern. Both sides are enhancing military infrastructure around the Line of Actual Control, and the lack of political engagement increases the risk of armed conflict with possible escalation to war. 

In December 2023, China reiterated its rejection of Ladakh as a union territory of India, following India’s Supreme Court upholding the reorganization of Jammu and Kashmir.

The change in Ladakh’s political representation requires the central government to recalibrate its domestic and foreign policies. While it is up to New Delhi to decide whether to concede to the four-point demands, winning the confidence of the people in the region is crucial for India’s national security and interests. With one of the toughest and highest terrains in the world, the people of Ladakh serve as the foremost natural defense against any external aggression. The evolution from the Nubra Guards in 1948 as a local militia, to the Ladakh Scouts as a paramilitary force, and finally to its integration into the Indian Army as a full-fledged regiment in 2000, after its pivotal role in the 1999 Kargil War, underscores the significant role of Ladakhis in defending India’s Himalayan borders.

At the domestic level, New Delhi must first preempt any public grievances and protests by resuming talks with representatives of Ladakh to reach a common consensus on the four-point demands. Additionally, provisions to support the villagers located along the eastern Ladakh border must be explored to repair the economic and livelihood damage caused by the border dispute. Since animals are the primary livelihood source in most of these villages, one option could be allowing nomads to graze their animals in traditional grazing lands that are now part of the buffer zone. Furthermore, there should be an emphasis on developing the border villages, including establishing robust telecommunication infrastructure.

From a foreign policy perspective, New Delhi must urgently resolve the China-India dispute in eastern Ladakh. This urgency is echoed by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s statements highlighting the gravity of the situation. India’s approach of defensive posturing combined with diplomatic pressure needs revision. As a major flashpoint in the Indo-Pacific, apart from traditional policies, innovative policies such as advocating for the Tibetan plateau as a Zone of Peace could be considered. 

Furthermore, the Ministry of External Affairs should engage research consultants proficient in the Tibetan/Bhoti language for two reasons: First, much of the historical literature on Ladakh and Tibet is available in this language. Second, most of the population on the Indian side, from Ladakh to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, as well as the Chinese side bordering the Tibetan plateau speaks Tibetan/Bhoti, making the language a strategic tool to understand the region including Ladakh at the ground level. Additionally, leveraging Ladakh’s historical significance as a stronghold of Buddhism since the Kushan Empire and the presence of ancient Buddhist monasteries and heritage sites, Ladakh could be transformed into an important center for India’s Buddhist diplomacy. 

The 2024 parliamentary election in Ladakh marks a pivotal moment for the region, significantly impacting both domestic and foreign policy of India around the region. New Delhi must address both the unmet local aspirations and the Chinese threat in the region by introducing innovation policy interventions and carefully considering how to win the confidence of the people. For a strategic border region like Ladakh, foreign policy and domestic policy cannot be mutually exclusive.