The Karnataka elections have emerged as a turning point for the Congress party, which has won 136 seats in the state Assembly with a 43% vote share – its highest since 1989.
Several things worked for the Congress this time – but one of the key players who may have contributed to the party's win are the women of Karnataka.
In 52 constituencies in the state – spread across South Karnataka (19 seats), Coastal Karnataka (16), Central Karnataka (7), Bangalore-Urban (6), and Hyderabad Karnataka (4) – women polled more than men, according to an analysis by The Indian Express. And in 28 of these constituencies (more than half), the Congress won.
The BJP and the JD(S), meanwhile, won only 14 and 9 seats out of these, respectively.
While this may not be conclusive evidence, as post-poll analyses are still in the works, experts suggest that women may have, in fact, played a vital role in bringing the Congress back to power. Here's how.
Why Experts Think Women's Role Was Vital
First, let's take a look at the numbers. As per the Election Commission, 1.96 crore men and 1.91 crore women cast their votes in the Karnataka Assembly elections on 10 May. Their turnout was 73.68% and 72.70%, respectively.
While women's overall turnout was lower than that of men, the number of women voters has gone up from 2.49 crore in 2018 to 2.59 crore in 2023 (the number of male voters went up from 2.55 crore to 2.62 crore in the same period). Moreover, 112 out of the 224 seats in the Karnataka Assembly have more female voters now. In 2018, there were only 67 such seats, as per Outlook.
Now that we've established that women voters' participation in Karnataka has been higher than before, let's look at why experts think they may have influenced the Congress' vote share.
As per India Today-Axis My India's pre-poll survey, 44% of women (vote share) supported the Congress and 33% supported the BJP. In other words, there is a lead of 11% for the Congress (as against the BJP) amongst female voters, which gives it roughly a 5.5% vote share advantage.
"As the Axis My India's exit poll was largely in line with what the actual result was, we can assume that these numbers are fairly correct," political strategist Amitabh Tiwari told The Quint.
We also know that the total vote share of the Congress is 43%, and that of the BJP is 36%. So, the overall lead that the Congress has over the BJP is 7%.
Tiwari explained, "If the Congress' lead among female voters is 11%, then 5.5% percent of its overall lead of 7% is accounted for by women. Therefore, 70-80% of the lead that the Congress has is because a higher share of women voted for the party."
Women Voters Look for Delivery of Promises
In 2022, data from Axis My India and Lokniti-CSDS post-poll survey of four Assembly elections – Uttar Pradesh, Goa, Manipur, and Uttarakhand – stated that women seemed to have voted for the BJP more than men in all four states where the party won, according to Outlook.
In fact, women are seen to vote for incumbent governments more than the opposition – because the government in power has the ability to bring tangible changes. Speaking to The Quint, Tara Krishnaswamy, political commentator and co-founder of Political Shakti, said:
"Women's voting pattern has been documented by the CSDS and other analyses from even MGR's [MG Ramachandran, former CM of Tamil Nadu] days – in the 80s. It has also been documented for NTR [NT Rama Rao, the former CM of Andhra Pradesh] and Jayalalithaa [former CM of Tamil Nadu]. After that, it was documented for Nitish Kumar, Naveen Patnaik, and Mamata Banerjee as well. And more recently, post-2019, it has been documented in the case of Narendra Modi."
So, why did the women of Karnataka vote differently this time? The answer, according to Krishnaswamy, lies in the fact that historically, women tend to vote differently when they feel strongly about something – and they link that to delivery, not manifesto promises, election rhetoric, rallies, roadshows, or the size of the audience.
"If you look at the 2022 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections for example, women voted for Yogi Adityanath's law and order promise. Someone outside may not consider that law and order at all. But they are comparing the BJP's delivery to the previous Samajwadi Party government, when there was more goondaism," she said.
She added that the question that women voters often ask is: "Am I getting more out of this government for the things I feel strongly about?"
"Women care about law and order. They care about food, hunger; they care about price rise, jobs – because all of these things affect them disproportionately. When there is a law and order issue, political instability, social instability, women are the first to get hurt. The same goes for jobs – women lose their jobs first," she said.
So, What Worked for Congress?
As far as Karnataka and the Congress are concerned, Krishnaswamy explained, "women had seen the delivery in the 2013-18 Siddaramaiah government, where they had the Anna Bhagya scheme. But that scheme was cut down by the Basavaraj Bommai government. They also had the Indira Canteens, but they were not kept up by the BJP government."
The Indira Canteens created by Siddaramaiah government were aimed at providing low-cost meals to the urban poor, whereas the Anna Bhagya scheme provided food grains to the poor.
Moreover, out of the five guarantees made by the Congress in their election manifesto this year, most of them are relevant to women and households. "Free bus passes, Rs 2,000 to women heads of family – these are things that are important to women of lower income groups," said Amitabh Tiwari.
While the BJP had also offered three gas cylinders to women over a one-year period, Tiwari said this announcement came much later than the Congress' manifesto.
"The BJP keeps its manifestos till the end and there is a risk that this message did not reach all the voters. So, even though the BJP promised LPG cylinders, the Congress had the advantage, because they were raising the issue of price rise. The BJP's promise, therefore, appeared to be a counter to the Congress' campaign," he said.
Krishnaswamy concurred, saying that a lot of things didn't work for the BJP, but the most important was that their political narratives never tried to connect with the real problems of women.
But Women Aren't Homogenous Groups
The Axis My India survey also predicted that women in the Coastal Karnataka region would favour the BJP more than the Congress, with a 13% lead. Coastal Karnataka is also a region where women polled more than men in 16 seats.
Moreover, as per The Indian Express, the highest absolute gap between female and male turnout across the state was recorded in Byndoor constituency in Udupi (Coastal Karnataka), where the BJP candidate, Gururaj Shetty Gantihole, won. Here, as many as 97,961 women voters polled, as against 85,517 men.
This goes to show that women aren't homogenous entities. Caste and community also plays a role in determining women's vote.
Take for instance, the West Bengal Assembly elections in 2021. After the polls, it was widely discussed how women formed the backbone of Mamata Banerjee's stellar win. But when The Quint spoke to voters on the ground, we found out that it would be too simplistic to say that women's vote as a whole swung the election for the Trinamool Congress.
While Adivasi, upper-caste, Muslim women voters rallied behind Mamata, it was seen that Dalit and OBC women voters preferred the BJP. While we can't categorically say why women in Coastal Karnataka swayed towards the BJP, caste and community lines surely had a role to play.
What Women's Vote Means for Future of Politics
"Another factor that may not have worked for the BJP in Karnataka, as far as women voters are concerned, is that there's no women leadership – be it in the state or the centre. The Congress at least portrays a woman leadership," said Tiwari.
Now that women have emerged out of the label of 'silent voters' and have become specific vote banks for political parties, it is also important that they be made a part of the electoral decision-making process, according to the experts.
"Parties will have to start having more women leaderships. They will have to give a higher number of tickets to women. The people who make manifestos are men, they are the decision-makers. So, they can't really understand the needs and aspirations of women. With the rise in women voters, they would have to consider this."Amitabh Tiwari
Krishnaswamy, however, pointed out that without women's reservation in politics, it is unlikely that their participation in politics would improve organically.
"A lot of citizen pressure needs to be exerted on political parties. This is the reason why we should have reservations. You struggle for 75 years, and you don't even have basic representation. You don't even have one-fourth – let alone one-third – representation. In Parliament, you're representation has gone from 7% to 14% – from 5% to 7% in the state assembly. At this rate, in the next 75 years, you'll still be at 20%," she said.