Karnataka Elections 2023: Did Women Swing the Vote in Karnataka?

Women voters have become a decisive force in determining poll outcomes, Karnataka was the latest to show us

Women come out and vote in large numbers. (Photo by Pallava Bagla/Corbis via Getty Images)
Women come out and vote in large numbers. (Photo by Pallava Bagla/Corbis via Getty Images)

Rashme Sehgal

Women have become a decisive force in determining which party will win at the hustings. The most recent example of woman power on full display was the decisive role they played in ensuring the Indian National Congress swept to power in Karnataka. As per the Election Commission data, the number of registered women voters has crossed the 2.59 crore ballpark figure in Karnataka. For comparison, the number of male voters is 2.62 crore. The women’s actual turnout was also very high, with 72.7 per cent women having voted, against a 73.68 per cent turnout of men. Even more interesting is the fact that women voters outnumbered men in 112 of the 224 assembly seats.

Explaining this large turnout, political analyst Tara Krishnaswamy—also co-founder of the NGO Political Shakti, which aims to motivate more women into political leadership roles—said, “The immediate concern for women is to keep their families free from hunger. With rising unemploy-ment, families are witnessing a great deal of stress and trauma. When Siddaramaiah was the chief minister in 2013, he introduced a slew of women-friendly measures which delivered to the last doorstep.” Households below the poverty line (BPL families) were being given 5 kg of rice, plus there was the Anna Bhagya scheme for free medical care, maternity benefits and the Indira Canteens offering subsidised meals.

The BJP put an end to the Indira Canteen, stopped the Anna Bhagya scheme and reduced the quantity of rice to 3 kg. But when the Congress in their manifesto announced free bus travel for women, monthly assistance of Rs 2,000 for families headed by women, 10 kg of food grains for BPL families and 200 units of free electricity, the women believed these electoral promises “only because they had seen them being implemented in the past”, said Krishnaswamy. The BJP had become suspect in their eyes, even though they too had made a host of electoral promises.

Sarojini, a domestic worker in Shivaji Nagar, said, “The BJP did nothing to curb unemployment and must take responsibility for having raised prices. Worse, they have changed the labour laws and workers are now being made to work 12 hours instead of the earlier 8 hours. The only other law they brought in was the ‘love jihad’ law,” she said.

Rising unemployment levels have seen a 42 per cent increase in cases of domestic violence too, making Karnataka the state with the highest number of DV cases in India. Malnutrition and cases of stunting in children have also shown a rise in the last five years. Women in Karnataka are strongly opposed to political instability as this has a direct bearing on their incomes. The Hindutva-induced violence with the hijab-halal bans and throwing Muslim traders out of Hindu temple areas created their own adverse ripples against the ruling party

Sonya Fernandes, who works with the Aweksha Foundation, which focuses on Dalit and minority communities, believes that the new government has to focus on providing better governance so that violence against these marginalised groups is reduced. “Perpetrators of violence must be brought to book. We are trying to ensure [minorities] are better governed and more conscious of their citizen rights,” said Sonya.

Notably, not only did the BJP lose all 15 reserved seats for ST representation, showing the lack of trust that tribal communities had in its polices, they also lost in the Kalyana Karnataka region, which is the home turf of Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge. And yes, women from the Dalit communities came out in large numbers to vote for the Congress.

Dipali Sikand, who runs a restaurant outside Bengaluru, believes rural women have been demanding from the government better services, improved healthcare and greater representation. Recognising this trend, the Congress fielded six women candidates from rural Karnataka, including Kusuma H. Hiremanth from Bagalkote, Jyoti Priya Guttedar from Ballari and Lakshmi Hebbalkar from Bengaluru.

The women voters in urban Bengaluru seemed to favour the BJP, though, as it won five seats against the Congress’s two. Writer Srilata Menon, a resident of Indiranagar and an observer of electoral voting patterns, believes, “Educated urban women feel a sense of entitlement and so they identify with the BJP. But that is also the case with rural women, who depend on government services for fulfilment of their basic needs.”

Women’s votes are now playing a decisive role across several states. Take the example of the women of Bihar who rallied around Nitish Kumar for three consecutive elections.

So strong is their voter loyalty towards Kumar that the voter turnout of women in the 2020 state election was almost 60 per cent, against 54.7 per cent for men. In fact, women voters’ turnout was higher in 166 of a total 243 constituencies and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) registered a win in 99 seats, where the women’s voting percentage was higher than that of the men.

Kumar won over the women voters by implementing a slew of poverty alleviation schemes specifically for women, apart from giving them a 50 per cent quota for representation in panchayat and municipal bodies.

In the South, the wooing of women voters started in a big way in 1982, when the then Tamil Nadu chief minister M.G. Ramachandran upgra-ded the existing schoolchildren’s midday meal, calling it the “nutritious noon day meal”. This reached 68 lakh malnourished children. Taking a leaf out of his book, former Andhra Pradesh chief minister N.T. Rama Rao also introduced several women empowerment schemes, thereby securing their votes.

Women voters also played decisive roles in West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s resounding victory in 2021. For Mamata, her victory was especially sweet because of the vicious campaign conducted against her by no less than Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself.

She had initiated as many as 250 women-oriented welfare schemes, having realised that 48.5 per cent of the electorate comprised female voters. The result was the vote share of the Trinamool Congress going up to 48 per cent from 40 per cent, while that of the BJP came down to 37 per cent from 40 per cent.

While the EC is yet to give a breakup of the women’s vote percentages in each constituency for Karnataka, there is little doubt that women voters refused to buy the Hindutva rhetoric and the communal hate-infused politics of the BJP. No party can take women for granted anymore.

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