Even as all his competitors suffer from diminished popularity, Bharatiya Janata Party leader and Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, has emerged as the top choice for India’s next Prime Minister among voters. He, however, faces a stiff challenge with a differentiated response across regions and social categories, and Congress vice-president, Rahul Gandhi, only marginally behind in a direct run-off.

These are the major national findings of the CNN-IBN-The Hindu Election Tracker Survey, conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), across 267 constituencies in 18 states.

Nineteen percent of respondents, up from five per cent in 2011, want Mr. Modi as Prime Minister. The numbers have reversed for Mr. Gandhi, who is backed by 12 per cent voters as opposed to 19 per cent two years ago. But in an indication that these are still early days, a significant proportion of voters — 39 percent — did not offer an opinion when asked about their preferred Prime Minister.

In addition, when asked to choose in a direct face-off between the two candidates, Mr. Modi is only marginally ahead with 33 per cent support, with Mr. Gandhi commanding 31 per cent support. Muslims, Scheduled Castes, and South Indian States are more inclined to vote for the Congress leader. Mr. Modi enjoys a decisive edge in Hindi-speaking states, and regions where Congress and BJP are locked in a bipolar contest.

As he completes his second-term, despite allegations of corruption and policy paralysis, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh remains India’s most ‘liked’ politician and will be remembered as an ‘honest’ Prime Minister. But satisfaction levels have dipped with his government by seven percentage point in the last two years. Among State leaders, Nitish Kumar is most liked in Bihar, followed by Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi. Mr. Modi ranks a third, with 64 per cent Gujarat’s residents ‘liking’ him.

With 19%, Modi top choice for PM

With his popularity shooting up almost four times in the past years, even as his competitors suffered a dip in ratings, Mr. Modi has emerged as the top choice for India’s next Prime Minister.

But in a direct face-off, Mr. Gandhi is only marginally behind Mr. Modi, while a large section of voters has not yet made up its mind. Strikingly, despite a dip in satisfaction levels with his performance, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh remains the most ‘liked’ of politicians. As India heads for elections, with the leadership question taking centre stage, these are some of the major findings of the CNN-IBN-The Hindu Election Tracker Survey, conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS).

Asked who they would like to see as their preferred prime minister after the next Lok Sabha election, 19 per cent respondents chose Mr. Modi. Only five per cent picked him in a previous poll in 2011, while this number was 2 per cent in 2009. In what ought to worry the Congress, while 19 per cent had chosen Mr. Gandhi as their preferred candidate in 2011, this number has dipped to 12 per cent now. Only six per cent want to see Dr. Singh enjoy a third term, while senior BJP leader L.K. Advani gets the support of only two per cent of the respondents.

But the good news for Mr. Modi comes with several caveats. One, 39 per cent of voters did not offer an opinion on their choice for prime minister, indicating that they had not made up their minds or did not wish to share their view. This is a 14 percentage point jump from 2011, when only a quarter of the respondents chose not to answer the question. These undecided/silent voters could form the core swing vote next year.

Two, in a direct face-off with Mr. Gandhi, Mr. Modi has an edge, but the margin is slim. Thirty-three per cent respondents chose the Gujarat Chief Minister, while 31 per cent opted for Mr. Gandhi. Women voters are divided in equal numbers between the two leaders. While Mr. Gandhi enjoys a decisive edge among Muslims, the Scheduled Castes, and voters from south Indian States, Mr. Modi is ahead in the Hindi-speaking States and those regions which witness a bipolar contest between the Congress and the BJP. Mr. Modi’s support among Muslims has increased slightly in the past two years though, from two to nine per cent.

Three, an age-wise break-up reveals the contest between the two is a lot closer than it first appears. India’s youth is divided almost down to the middle. Thirty six per cent voters between the age of 18 and 25 want Mr. Modi as PM, while 35 per cent want Mr. Gandhi. Those between 26 and 35 are as divided, with 35 per cent opting for Mr. Modi and 33 per cent for Mr. Gandhi. The same gap of two percentage points in Mr. Modi’s favour repeats itself in the 36-45 age group.

Mr. Modi is also leading a party that no longer enjoys a reputation for ‘good leadership.’ In 2004, 37 per cent respondents felt the BJP provided ‘good leadership’ as opposed to 31 per cent who thought this was the case for the Congress. While the number for the Congress has remained the same, it has dipped for the BJP to 30 per cent.

And finally, on the issue of likeability, Mr. Gandhi enjoys a slight edge over Mr. Modi. Fifty-six per cent like the Congress leader, while 54 per cent like Mr. Modi.

The survey also broke down this question to judge attitudes at the State-level vis-à-vis State leaders. While anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare was the most liked in his home State of Maharashtra, among active politicians, 75 per cent of the respondents in Bihar liked Nitish Kumar. Sixty-five per cent in Delhi liked Arvind Kejriwal. Mr. Modi ranked third, with 64 per cent voters in Gujarat expressing a liking for him. Mr. Kumar is also the favourite for the prime ministerial candidate of a non-Congress and non-BJP formation.

Evaluating Dr. Singh

Though he faces relentless criticism and allegations of presiding over a corrupt regime, Dr. Singh is India’s most ‘liked’ politician, with 63 per cent voters expressing a view in his favour. After nine years in office, India’s most-educated Prime Minister is most likely to be remembered for his integrity. When asked what describes Dr. Singh best, 25 per cent agreed with the assertion that he was an ‘honest PM.’

‘Honesty,’ in fact, is the single most important attribute voters are seeking. Asked to identify the one leadership trait they seek in their next Prime Minister, 29 per cent of the respondents selected this quality, as opposed to 14 per cent picking experience or 11 per cent selecting youth or a mere 10 per cent choosing decisiveness. That may explain why Dr. Singh continues to evoke respect, but he does not have much else to cheer about. Forty-nine per cent voters are now satisfied with his performance, as opposed to 56 per cent in 2011.

Logic overturned

In an indication of the larger direction of Indian political system, there is a general desire that parties project a prime ministerial candidate in the run-up to polls. Forty-seven per cent respondents want parties to project a candidate before polls, overturning the logic of the parliamentary system that elected representatives would choose a leader. Fifty per cent Congress and Fifty-four per cent BJP supporters share this view. Seventy per cent Congress supporters say they will vote for the party if Mr. Gandhi is projected as prime ministerial candidate, while 79 per cent BJP supporters say this for Mr. Modi.

But paradoxically, the party and the candidate are more important factors for voters in determining how they cast their ballot. Forty-five per cent say they will vote on the basis of the party, while 30 per cent say it will be based on the local candidate. Even among Mr. Modi’s supporters, the figures are 47 and 25 per cent respectively. This indicates that politics will remain local, voters are guided by complex motivations, and a direct face-off between two personalities cannot capture the diversity of Indian polity.