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.