NEW DELHI (AFP) - India's business community strongly supports Hindu hardliner Narendra Modi to be the next prime minister, a poll showed on Friday, with the ruling Congress party's heir-apparent, Mr Rahul Gandhi, trailing a distant second.
Mr Modi, chief minister of the economically thriving Gujarat state, is expected to be tapped to be premier if the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wins a general election due by May. The Nielsen/Economic Times newspaper poll of 100 corporate leaders showed 74 per cent wanted Mr Modi to be prime minister while just 7 per cent believed Mr Gandhi would be the best choice.
Mr Modi, popularly known as "NaMo", was named the BJP's election committee chairman in June and has sought to broaden his appeal by pitching himself as an advocate of economic development rather than Hindu supremacy, by stressing his achievements in promoting industry. He has not stated publicly he wants to be Prime Minister, but he has painted himself as a pro-business reformist who can revive the fortunes of the world's largest democracy, which is suffering a sharp economic slowdown and whose currency's value has plunged.
Mr Modi has become popular in India's corporate world, where he is seen as a market-friendly leader who has energetically wooed industry to set up factories in his state. However, he remains a divisive figure after being accused of doing nothing to stop Hindu mobs massacring Muslims during riots in his state in 2002 in which as many 2,000 people died, according to rights groups.
While Mr Modi has denied any wrongdoing, one of his former ministers was jailed last year for orchestrating some of the 2002 violence and India's Supreme Court once likened him to Nero, the emperor who fiddled while Rome burned.
Mr Gandhi, 43, who is some two decades younger than Mr Modi, and who has a vastly different background and personality, has been groomed for the premier's job by his mother, Congress party president Sonia Gandhi. But he has shown a marked reluctance to pursue the post with 80-year-old premier Manmohan Singh expected to step aside following the election and declared earlier this year he was not "a hard-nosed politician".
The Congress-led government is lagging badly in the polls, its popularity sapped by the economic downturn and a slew of corruption scandals.