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India: Pre-election poll shows support for opposition leader Modi

MUMBAI, India – One week before elections that will determine a new prime minister, Indians are deeply dissatisfied with the direction of their country and overwhelmingly want a change in leadership in New Delhi, according to a survey released Monday.

The Pew Research Center found that Indians favor the main opposition group, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, to the ruling Indian National Congress by a ratio of more than 3 to 1. The BJP’s strong showing rests on the perception that it would do a better job combating the country’s range of woes including corruption, unemployment, inflation and political deadlock, the survey said.

The findings bolster the sense of inevitability that is beginning to envelop Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate who currently leads the influential western state of Gujarat. Although Modi has long faced accusations that he did not intervene to stop deadly anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002, he has recast himself as a clean, business-friendly politician whose state has posted impressive economic growth.

Nearly eight in 10 Indians surveyed held a favorable view of Modi, while only 50% felt the same way about his rival, Congress Party standard-bearer Rahul Gandhi, scion of the Jawaharlal Nehru-Indira Gandhi dynasty that has led India for most of its history since independence in 1947. This and other polls suggest the Congress Party may suffer its worst-ever showing in the parliamentary elections that begin April 7 and run into mid-May.

Dogged by corruption scandals and flagging economic growth, the Congress Party has relied on support from rural Indians, whom it has boosted with food subsidies and entitlement schemes. But in a troubling sign for the party, more than half of those Pew surveyed said that the BJP would do a better job than Congress in aiding the poor.

If Modi comes to power in India, the world’s 10th largest economy, it would create some uncomfortable questions for the United States, which until recently had observed an official boycott of the firebrand leader and had denied him a visa due to his alleged role in the 2002 violence.

In February, the U.S. ambassador to New Delhi, Nancy Powell, broke the chill by requesting a meeting with Modi in his home state. State Department officials described the encounter as cordial, but many within the U.S. government still regard Modi with suspicion.

U.S. business leaders, including companies such as Ford and General Motors, which have built plants in Gujarat, are said to be broadly supportive of a Modi prime ministership. Ultimately, his supporters say, a stronger Indian economy is in the United States’ best interest.

Seven of 10 Indians surveyed said they were dissatisfied with the way things are going in their country, although a strong majority, 62%, said they expected the economy to improve over the next year. Young Indians, having come of age over the past decade in which the country doubled per capita income, are more optimistic about their economic prospects than those 50 and older, Pew found.

The survey also found that despite a recent rupture in bilateral relations following the arrest and strip-search of an Indian diplomat in Manhattan, 56% of Indians view the United States favorably – a number comparable to pro-U.S. sentiments Pew recorded in Great Britain and Germany.

A plurality of those surveyed held an unfavorable view of China, India’s Asian rival, with nearly two-thirds saying that China’s growing military might was a problem for India.

Pew, a Washington-based public opinion research center, surveyed 2,464 Indian adults in December and January in 15 of the country’s 17 most populous states.

shashank.bengali@latimes.com

Twitter: @SBengali

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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