Ladakh's politics of consensus

A lesson, in election times?

Published: Sunday 30 November 2003

-- THE acid test of a politician's commitment to his/her polity is the ability to stay above the dominant trend and to fashion the public imagination along a path of common welfare. This is a rarity in politics. Always has been. Politicians across the world take the easier course. So, instead of working out a solution to the mismanagement of electricity supply, you will have politicians declaring sops for voters. The voter in India has caught on to this short-term approach, and few political parties can count on their support now. Which makes the politicians even more unwilling to take tough decisions. A vicious circle is what we have.

But Ladakh (see: All stones turned) is experiencing politics of a very different kind. Ladakhi society has its peculiarities. Population density is low and the society is closely-knit. The difficulties of survival in this hostile region have led to the creation of a society that is built on cooperation and a sense of community. Leh district saw a vigorous movement for self-rule that was realised in the form of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill development Council in 1995.

Since then, Ladakhi leaders have engaged in a refreshing style of politics. Since there are no easy solutions to any of the myriad problems in Ladakh, tough decisions are inevitable. Ladakhi politicians have adopted popular consensus as the mantra to mobilise the people behind tough decisions. So, if Leh town faces an acute shortage of electricity, they manage to get people to disclose their illegal connections to better organise supply. Moreover, they manage to get people to spend extra money on installing energy saving lighting systems. And they show the results by improving power supply. Bureaucrats in Leh acknowledge that they have accepted the superiority of the political leadership because it knows how to fashion public opinion on difficult issues. The education reforms in Leh are impressive because they weren't imposed on the people by the government; it came out of a popular movement. The politicians are in close touch with the civil society and always give it its due. Thupstan Chhewang and his colleagues at the hill council are providing some much-needed inspiration to politics.

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