Everything's Coming Up Modi

A new survey shows widespread support for a controversial Indian candidate.

On Feb. 13, U.S. Ambassador to India Nancy Powell met Narendra Modi for the first time, ending the U.S. policy of shunning the popular chief minister of Gujarat, five months after he announced his candidacy for prime minister. Because of allegations of complicity in the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat, Washington denied Modi a visa in 2005, and until February had refrained from engaging with him. But it's not just Washington that's warmed to Modi. The Indian public, by a margin of more than three-to-one, would prefer Modi's right-of-center, Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party rather than the ruling left-of-center Indian National Congress party to lead the next Indian government, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.

Strikingly, the 63-year-old Modi is far more popular than the 43-year-old putative Congress party prime ministerial candidate Rahul Gandhi. Seventy-eight percent of Indians have a favorable view of Modi, while only 16 percent hold an unfavorable view. Gandhi, by contrast, is seen favorably by 50 percent of those surveyed, while 43 percent view him unfavorably. The survey results reflect a growing perception within India and abroad that Modi will be India's next leader, following a parliamentary election in coming weeks.

Modi, who has presided over Gujarat's more than 10 percent annual GDP growth during his 12 years as that state's chief minister, is wooing voters by highlighting his track record as a leader who cuts red tape and attracts investment. And his appeal crosses many of India's wide divides. He draws strong support from upper income Indians (80 percent); but also from low-income Indians (72 percent). He is particularly well liked by those with at least a college education (86 percent), but 76 percent of Indians with a primary education or less view him favorably. And Modi is equally popular in urban areas (77 percent) and rural parts of India (78 percent).

This balance of popularity extends geographically as well. Modi's favorability is strongest (84 percent) in the northern states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab, and Delhi. But 77 percent of those surveyed in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu, where the BJP has historically performed poorly, support Modi as well. (The survey didn't determine reasons for his popularity.)

Like Modi, Gandhi's favorability is fairly consistent across demographic groups, while his regional support is strongest (66 percent) in the eastern states of states of Odisha, Bihar, West Bengal and Jharkhand. But there is a notable difference between the intensity of support for Modi and Gandhi. Fully 60 percent of those surveyed say they have a very favorable view of the Gujarati leader, but only 23 percent have a very favorable opinion of Rahul, the heir apparent to the Gandhi family legacy.

The 67-year-old Sonia Gandhi, long-time president of the Congress party, mother of Rahul and widow of assassinated Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, is seen favorably by 49 percent of the public. But 46 percent have an unfavorable view of her. (52 percent of Indians have a favorable view of Manmohan Singh, the Congress party's outgoing two-term prime minister.)

The survey results were based on 2,464 face-to-face interviews in eight different languages with adults 18 and older conducted between Dec. 7, 2013 and Jan. 12, 2014 in 15 of India's 17 most populous states and Delhi. Together, they are home to about 91 percent of the adult Indian population. (The margin of sampling error is ±3.8 percentage points.)

The survey does not suggest, of course, that Modi's victory is a sure thing. Favorability of a candidate does not always translate into electability. And anything can happen between now and the election, when a large percentage of the country's 814 million eligible voters will head to the polls.

One thing that could complicate matters is the role of smaller parties. On Feb. 25, 11 regional parties announced an alliance to provide voters with an alternative to the BJP and Congress. The Pew Research survey shows that 12 percent of Indian voters would prefer some party other than BJP or Congress to lead the next government. Many Indian political pundits believe that even if the BJP garners the most seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India's parliament, it may not gain an absolute majority and would thus have to form a coalition national government with the support of some local and regional parties.

The Aam Aadmi or Common Man party, which boasts an anti-corruption, upstart image, could prove a wild card, tapping in to public frustration with graft and dishonesty. But finding candidates and creating a nationwide political infrastructure on short notice may prove daunting. Moreover, the survey shows that on each of a half dozen challenges facing the nation -- from combating corruption to fighting terrorism -- the public says the BJP would do a better job than Congress or any other party, in each case by a margin of more than two-to-one. Indians want a change in the leadership -- and the election is Modi's to lose.

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The Pulse


Americans love Europe and free trade. But is the pending trade deal facing choppy waters?

As far as summits go, there may be no more important -- or more boring -- gathering in Washington this year. This week, U.S. and European Union negotiators are meeting in D.C. in the third round of talks aimed at creating a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), effectively a U.S.-EU free trade agreement. Broadening and deepening the transatlantic market has long had notional public support in the United States and currently enjoys overwhelming backing by American foreign policy elites. It also reflects a public commitment to Europe even as the Obama administration pivots toward Asia.

But such backing masks a deep vein of skepticism about the benefits of trade liberalization for average people. So while a free trade deal with Europe -- where wages, working conditions and environmental standards are comparable to those in the United States -- would appear to be an easier sell to the American public than a similar accord with poorer, less advanced economies (like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, currently under discussion, as well), the devil may still be in the details.

Americans are favorably disposed toward Europe, despite jokes about the French and European anti-Americanism in the last decade. Some 79 percent of the public have a favorable view of Great Britain, 67 percent have a positive perception of Germany -- even 59 percent have a favorable opinion of France. By comparison, only 46 percent have a good view of India and just 33 percent have a favorable perception of China.

When it comes to partners, an even 50 percent of Americans now think Europe is the most important region for the United States, up from 37 percent in 2011, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. Only 35 percent now say Asia is the most important area for the United States.

Roughly three-quarters (77 percent) of the American public say growing trade and business ties with other countries is a good thing for the United States. And nearly six-in-ten (58 percent) want to increase trade with Europe, according to a different Pew Research Center poll. A 2007 German Marshall Fund survey found that 64 percent of Americans support efforts to "deepen the economic ties between the EU and the United States by making transatlantic trade and investment easier."

There is even stronger support for TTIP among American foreign policy experts. A recent Pew Research Center survey done in conjunction with the Council on Foreign Relations found that 93 percent of CFR members surveyed say that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership would be a good thing for the United States.

Oddly, these same foreign policy elites place far less stock in transatlantic ties than does the public. Just 12 percent cite Europe as an important future ally or partner for the United States, compared with 37 percent who say India and 34 percent who mention China.

Moreover, while the American public overall sees Europe -- not Asia -- as more important for the United States, a generational divide exists that does not favor Europe. More than half (58 percent) of the public 50 years of age and older cite Europe as a valuable partner, just 43 percent of those aged 18-49 see Europe as a helpful ally in the future.  

Still, TTIP should be a no-brainer, right?

Not so fast. Average Americans are skeptical of the benefits of trade deals. A 2010 Pew Research Center survey found that 55 percent of the public said free trade agreements lead to job losses. This included 58 percent of Republicans and 47 percent of Democrats. And a 45 percent plurality said that free trade deals lowered wages. Notably, Americans did not even buy economists' arguments that heightened trade lowers prices by increasing competition in the U.S. market. Roughly three-in-ten (31 percent) said trade agreements lowered prices, while the same number (31 percent) said they lead to higher prices.

So as free trade negotiations with Europe proceed, Americans seem predisposed toward trade liberalization, especially with the European Union. But concerns about the impact of trade on wages and jobs and a generational pivot toward Asia suggest that TTIP is not a slam dunk. That impinges on the negotiators in Washington -- if they don't come away with a deal that keeps both parties happy, the political window for a transatlantic agreement could eventually close.