Elections

Women In Karnataka: The Silent Vote Bank

The Congress is banking on several welfare schemes for women to garner their votes in Karnataka. Can this set the trend for the rest of the country?

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K. S. Gowramma, 65, stands in front of a mural of Indian freedom fighter Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and shows her finger marked with indelible ink after voting in the second phase of the general elections on April 26, 2024 in Bengaluru, India. Photo: Getty Images
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M A Jayashree, a first-year law student, presented a garland made of free bus tickets to Karnataka Chief Minister Siddara­maiah. Each ticket symbolised a journey made possible by the free bus travel scheme called ‘Shakti’ for all women, including transgenders, introduced by the Siddaramaiah government in June last year. Her gesture of gratitude was echoed elsewhere in the state, as the chief minister shared on social media about one of the toppers of the 2nd Pre-University Course (PUC) arts examination, Vedant Jnyanuba Navi, attributing his success to the Gruha Lakshmi scheme, which provides financial assistance to poor families.

A lingering question arises: will these schemes of the Congress party translate into votes? This question assumes significance amidst the intricate web of electoral dynamics, where the divergent voting patterns in assembly and parliamentary elections are starkly evident.

Historical Context

Despite the Congress’ success in the assembly polls, parliamentary polls have traditionally favoured the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in recent years. In the 2019 parliamentary election, the Congress secured merely one seat, while the BJP clinched 25 seats. In the last two decades, the Congress could never reach double digits in the Lok Sabha elections, while the BJP could never get a full majority in the assembly elections. In these elections, the BJP and the Janata Dal (Secular) (JD(S)) are in an alliance.

Since the late 1970s, Karnataka has witnessed a consolidation of voters along caste lines, catalysed by land reforms that alienated the landowner-feudal communities, particularly the Vok­kaligas and the Lingayats, from the Congress. This resulted in these communities supporting the anti-Congress coalition led by the Janata Party. The Janata Dal’s split in 1999, over supporting the BJP-led alliance at the centre, further shaped the political landscape.

While J H Patel, the then chief minister of Karnataka, led the Janata Dal (United) splinter group and later merged it with Ramakrishna Hegde’s Lok Shakti the same year ahead of the polls and lent support to the BJP-led NDA at the centre, former Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda formed the JD(S) as a breakaway faction, leading to the consolidation of Vokkaliga votes. 

After the split in the Janata Dal, the majority of Lingayats—feeling marginalised and seeking a political identity—embraced the BJP, which was their only option at the time against the arch-rival Congress. Since then, a majority of the Lingayats have consistently supported the party, while the Brahmin community was already the traditional vote bank of the BJP.

Since then, north Karnataka, known as the Lingayat belt, has remained the impregnable fortress of the BJP. In contrast, the old Mysuru region, where the Vokkaligas hold sway, has been a stronghold of the JD(S) and the Congress. Coastal Karnataka, for various reasons, including the fight for supremacy over trade control between the majority and minority communities, is a laboratory for the Hindutva ideology. This communally-sensitive region has witnessed a series of communal clashes during the last decades, deepening the fissures among communities, which is reflected in the voting patterns.

Interestingly, the unpredictability shrouding the current parliamentary elections stems not from caste or religious factors, but from a different source: the women voters of the state. The key to understanding the unpredictability of this election lies in understanding the mindset of women voters in Karnataka. Unlike other voting blocs, women have historically not been considered as a cohesive group by political parties. Despite constituting roughly 50 per cent of the voter base (26.3 million in Karnataka), women have often failed to consolidate their votes. The Congress government’s schemes have fundamentally altered this dynamic.

The impact of the Congress government’s schemes for women is profound. According to claims made by the Congress, for a family that avails five schemes—including Gruha Jyoti, Anna Bhagya, Gruha Lakshmi, Shakti and Yuvanidhi—the effective monthly increase in their income ranges from Rs 5,000 to Rs 8,000. And women are the direct or indirect beneficiaries of these schemes. As the battle lines were drawn for this election, initial predictions pointed towards a BJP majority.

However, as the campaign progressed, subtle undercurrents began to emerge. The significance of women’s schemes, particularly for the lower and lower-middle-income groups cannot be overstated. A recent survey on the impact of these schemes by a Kannada media portal ‘Ee Dina’ found a higher acceptance rate among women.

While these schemes may not sway the voting preferences of higher-income groups, who are less reliant on them, they could prompt a shift in the mindset of the lower income group women. While the former group may still vote based on ideology or caste, as directed by their communities or families, the latter may find the courage to deviate from the traditional caste-based voting norms.

Many believe that the impact of these schemes, even on a small percentage, will be reflected in the ballot box, potentially leading to a double-digit tally for the Congress, a substantial improvement from their single-seat tally in the 2019 election.

Impact of the Schemes

Political observers are scrambling to assess the impact of this undercurrent among low-income women voters and its repercussions on the elections. According to government data, there are 46 million beneficiaries of these schemes. A 2023 study by the International Journal of Novel Research and Development on the impact of the guarantees suggests that these schemes "show great potential for improving lives and securing a brighter future for its residents." There are other factors that may help the Congress. The nascent coalition between the JD(S) and the BJP, which is yet to reach grassroots workers; the dissatisfaction of the dominant Billava community—the traditional supporters of the BJP in coastal Karnataka—with the party; and, the fissures among Lingayat factions over the lack of prominence given to the community and its leaders, are fuelling the Congress’ hopes.

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Meanwhile, the BJP believes that the performance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, along with the anti-Congress sentiment, will lead them to victory, as in the past. The BJP, which initially labelled these schemes as a misuse of public funds, later did not hesitate to bring in the ‘Modi Guarantee’. This indicates their acknowledgement of the impact of such schemes on voting patterns. Similarly, JD(S) leader H D Kumaraswamy, who had earlier alleged that these schemes have derailed women, has stopped criticising them after facing a backlash from the public. 

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Unlike earlier elections, where the Congress was limited to responding to the BJP narrative, the success of these schemes has enabled the grand old party to set its own narrative. The BJP has now been forced to respond to this narrative. The desperation was evident in their front-page advertisements in newspapers, which only highlighted communal issues.

While acknowledging the schemes’ impact on women’s voting patterns, analysts caution that this influence may result in only a 4-5 per cent shift, as caste dynamics often overshadow other considerations in the country. However, even a modest percentage change can potentially be a decisive factor in determining victory. This gains importance as women voters outnumber men in at least 17 parliamentary constituencies. If this potential consolidation of women’s power materialises, it would be unprecedented and could set a precedent for similar movements across the country.

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While any consolidation of this nature is preferable to the divisive caste and religious politics plaguing our nation, its success ultimately hinges on the Congress’ ability to capitalise on this positive trend and translate it into votes. Whether this election will mark a historic turning point in women’s political participation remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: the silent undercurrents of change are palpable, and they have the power to redefine the future of Indian democracy.

(The author is a senior journalist)

(Views expressed are personal)

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