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Karnataka: Swing voters are key

The phenomenon of direct contests between the BJP and the Congress or the Congress and the JD(S) has been a significant factor
Last Updated : 17 April 2023, 21:43 IST
Last Updated : 17 April 2023, 21:43 IST

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Swing/floating voters have assumed importance in elections across the world. Some psephologists call them ‘persuadable voters’. Generally, voters differ in their degree of uncertainty. In US Presidential elections, for example, swing voters and swing states have been the key to victory since the 1990s. However, in elections across the world, the reasons for the voter’s shift are complicated and unpredictable, especially in these hyperpolarised times. The issue in Karnataka is, who, among the BJP, Congress and the JD(S), can persuade them to vote in their favour.

Technically, there are two images of a swing voter, namely those who are undecided about which party to vote for, and those voters who do not necessarily vote for the same party each time. In that sense, the swing voters have their misgivings about each of the parties. It is for the parties to persuade them.

Traditionally, the swing voters constitute the ‘silent majority’ and their votes tend to get divided among the Congress, BJP, and JD(S). In the coming elections, a variety of factors could influence swing voters. These vary from anti-incumbency, the Modi factor, money power, corruption, the Lingayat-Vokkaliga factor, the Muslim factor, poll promises, etc. The history of Karnataka elections suggests that even a minor swing could make a huge impact on the results.

Past elections in Karnataka have shown that the overall swing across the state was -1 per cent for BJP and +1 per cent for Congress. However, the region-wise swing has varied, based on factors like caste, religion and the participation of women. The highest participation of women has been in the JD(S)-dominated Vokkaliga belt and the lowest in the Muslim-dominated regions in the northern districts of the state.

The BJP is battling incumbency, allegations of corruption, criticisms about governance, and internal rebellion by those who have been denied a ticket to contest. It has not announced a chief ministerial candidate this time. Though Tipu Sultan, ‘love jihad’ and Ram Mandir are back in currency, it is too early to suggest that they would make an impact.

The JD(S) could play the role of kingmaker even if it secures only 20 seats, giving it the option to join hands with the BJP or the Congress. Over the last two decades, the vote share of the JD(S) in the Old Mysore region has remained relatively constant -- between 19 per cent and 21 per cent. Whether it will turn out to be the game-changer this time, only time will tell.

As for the Congress, the Siddaramaiah-D K Shivakumar tussle could dampen its chances. The Congress leadership seems conscious of this factor and has brokered a truce between the two.

The phenomenon of direct contests between the BJP and the Congress or the Congress and the JD(S) has been a significant factor. Well-known political analyst and psephologist Prof Sandeep Shastri argues that since 1999, the JD(S) “has conceded the principal race to the BJP and the Congress”. This is clearly evident in the increasing direct contests between the BJP and the Congress since then. Almost 80 per cent of the seats the BJP has won since has been the outcome of direct contests. In the case of the Congress, it has been 75 per cent. It was this factor that enabled the BJP to emerge as the single largest party in 2004, 2008 and 2018, the exception being 2013. For the BJP, a win in Karnataka matters -- to boost its chances in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections in the Dravidian heartland. This time on, the Congress is hoping to capitalise on anti-incumbency, corruption, and the rebellion within the BJP.

Previous elections have shown that the Congress tends to lose out more seats when new entrants enter the fray, unlike the JD(S). This is so because of the larger geographical spread of the Congress in the state, compared to that of the JD(S). The Congress and the JD(S) tend to have a larger share of the ‘swing’ voters in relation to the ‘core’ voters. It seems likely that swing voters will play a crucial role in deciding who will form the government in Karnataka.

The May 2023 elections are crucial for the BJP, but more so for the Congress. So far, no party has won consecutive elections in Karnataka in the last 20 years. There is always the possibility that the swing voter could make a crucial difference. The swing voter constitutes an unpredictable powerhouse since the undecided can still be the decider. The toughest part for the BJP, Congress and JD(S) will be to try and mobilise the non-voters and to persuade the swing voters. Hence the challenge is to strike a balance between mobilisation and persuasion.

(The writer is Professor, Dept of International Studies, Political Science and History, Christ (deemed to be) University, Bengaluru)

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Published 17 April 2023, 18:55 IST

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