Polling for the Karnataka Assembly elections 2023 concluded on Wednesday, 10 May, and it seems the state has created a record. The final voter turnout figure is at an all-time high of 73.19 percent, but this excludes postal ballots and votes from home.
In short, expect the total voter turnout to be still higher.
Several exit polls for the Karnataka Assembly elections have given a slight edge to the Congress, with predictions of a possible hung Assembly.
While two exit polls suggest a majority for the Congress in the 224-member Assembly, two others give a majority to the BJP.
The South First-Peoples Pulse Exit Poll has predicted that the Congress could possibly cross the halfway mark, but showed a range of 107 to 119 seats, with a vote share of 42 percent. The predicted vote share is 4 percent higher than what the party got in 2018.
The exit poll also predicted 78 to 90 seats for the BJP, with a projected vote share of 36 percent — pretty similar to the votes it received in 2018.
But exit polls apart, there are big trends in the voter turnout pattern that reveal much more about which way the wind is blowing in Karnataka.
South First Exit Poll: Congress could cross the halfway mark
High voter turnout indicates an undercurrent
“This is a waveless election” was a common description for the Karnataka Assembly polls 2023 by leaders and supporters of all three primary parties — the BJP, Congress and the JD(S). The voter turnout, however, suggests that there was an undercurrent all along in Karnataka.
For a large state like Karnataka, a turnout of more than 70 percent can be considered as a measure of a “wave” — either in favour of the incumbent government, or against.
More often than not, when there is a “wave” or an “undercurrent”, it is understood that the voters have already made up their minds on which way they will vote, and last-minute efforts such as rallies, announcements, or roadshows have little effect on that decision.
Given the narratives built in the run-up to the Assembly elections, the mood of the voter is more likely to be against the incumbent government — in this case, the BJP government led by Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai.
Unless, the undercurrent is formidably in favour of the BJP, the high voter turnout is best read as an “anti-BJP” vote.
The pattern was similar in 2018 Assembly elections that saw a 72.1 percent total voter turnout, when anti-Congress votes fueled by BJP’s sustained campaign against the Siddaramaiah government over issues of corruption and Hindutva, saw the saffron party emerge as the single-largest party with 104 seats.
This time around, the total voter turnout is likely to be close to three percent more than 2018.
Rural voters contribute to big numbers
The BJP insists that the high voter turnout is a result of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign blitzkrieg. The saffron party believes that Modi’s appeal has convinced BJP supporters, who were disillusioned with the local leadership and government, to set aside their dissatisfaction and vote for the party.
The numbers from Bengaluru — where the prime minister held roadshows on two consecutive days — however, remained more or less the same when compared to 2018.
It seems it is the rural voters who have come out in large numbers and contributed to the high polling percentages. Other than caste and community equations, leaders cutting across party lines believe that rural voters come out in large numbers also for issue-based voting.
In that case, instead of party, candidate and symbol, the everyday livelihood challenges and the solutions to them could take precedence in deciding voting preferences.
The South First-Peoples Pulse pre-poll surveys found that unemployment, poverty, and inflation were flagged as primary issues by respondents.
Corruption, too, featured in the list, but not as a primary concern. If the largescale voting was triggered by anger over inflation, poverty and unemployment, it cannot be good news for the incumbent government.
South First final pre-poll survey: Who has the edge in which constituency?
How parties look at turnout
The highest voter turnout for any district was recorded in the Old Mysuru region’s Chikkaballapura — one among the three districts that BJP has placed in the care of Health Minister Dr K Sudhakar who quit the Congress in 2019 and joined the BJP.
The big numbers in the Old Mysuru region, the BJP insists, will reflect in a hike in its vote share and will be a pro-BJP vote.
The JD(S), which is predicted to lose some of its vote share, is looking to mop it up in unconventional belts, including in the coastal seats, thanks to rebellions marring both the BJP and the Congress.
The Congress, on the other hand, looks at the higher voter turnout as a “vote against the incumbent”. The party is hoping that the 2-3 percent increase in total voter turnout will significantly contribute to increasing vote share and the rest of the votes it needs to seal the deal in Karnataka will come from what the JD(S) and BJP could lose.
The key factor that could tilt results
It isn’t just the total voter turnout that has caught the attention of political parties. Women voters in Karnataka, it seems, could emerge as gamechangers in this election.
The Election Commission of India’s official numbers suggest that women voter turnout was 72.7 percent as against male voter turnout of 73.68 percent.
The women’s voter turnout, higher in percentage terms compared to 2018, is, more importantly, just four lakh fewer than the male voters, compared to a gap of about eight lakh in the last election.
One core election issue that could have contributed to the increase in turnout of women voters: The Congress’ poll guarantee of ₹2,000 per month for women heads of household under its ‘Gruha Lakshmi’ scheme, perhaps the single-most effective poll promise this election.
Even leaders of the BJP, like its National General Secretary (Organisation) BL Santhosh, agreed, in a Twitter Space interaction, that the Congress guarantee of universal basic income for women has found resonance at the ground level.
Along with the party’s other promise — the Yuva Nidhi scheme, or financial assistance for unemployed youth — these guarantees are being perceived as immediate solutions to economic distress in rural areas.
If these announcements are what has contributed to the increased voter turnout, the mandate is likely to be in favour of the Congress.
To counter anti-incumbency, the BJP has attempted to convince it’s supporters that it is “experimenting” by leaving out senior leaders and accommodating new candidates, in what will be the first step in a “cleansing process”.
The party is banking on its “expansion plans” to get vote share from regions it barely has any presence in, to yield results in Karnataka, but there are no dearth of sceptics.
“If we win, we will touch the skies; but if we lose, we will be buried down under,” a BJP leader said on how the election could pan out for the saffron party.
The voter turnout pattern makes it clear that a broken mandate is unlikely in Karnataka.