Modi still most popular leader in India: Pew Research Center study

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi participates in the opening session of the 15th ASEAN-India Summit at the Philippine International Convention Center in Manila, Philippines, on Nov 14, 2017.
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi participates in the opening session of the 15th ASEAN-India Summit at the Philippine International Convention Center in Manila, Philippines, on Nov 14, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI - Prime Minister Narendra Modi remains the most popular leader in India, according to the US-based Pew Research Center, in a survey that underscores the trust people hold in him, even with the rumblings over a dip in economic growth.

The survey, conducted by the non-partisan think tank of 2,464 respondents in India from Feb 21 to March 10 this year (2017), said nearly nine in 10 had a favourable opinion of Mr Modi, who has held power for a little over three years.

His lowest ratings were for his handling of communal relations or tensions between Muslims and Hindus and India's various castes, issues that Pew said were, however, not at the forefront for many respondents.

It said Mr Modi "remains by far the most popular national figure in Indian politics tested in the survey", with his favourable ratings 31 percentage points higher than for Congress president Sonia Gandhi and 30 points more than for her son and Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi, who runs the party.

"The public's positive assessment of Modi is buoyed by growing contentment with the Indian economy: More than eight in 10 say economic conditions are good, up 19 percentage points since immediately before the 2014 election," said the report.

The survey found young Indians between 18 and 29 showed "slightly greater intensity of support" for Mr Modi than those aged 50 and over.

The Indian Prime Minister came to power in 2014 on the back of popular support. He promised to create jobs, boost the Indian economy and end corruption.

His Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has gone on to do well at many state level elections including in the populous state of Uttar Pradesh, which it won early this year.

Yet the survey comes at a time that there have been rumblings against the Modi government on the back of the demonetisation of high value currency and a dip in economic growth. While the move to take Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes out of circulation a year ago was said to target those with unaccounted money and was praised as an anti-corruption move, it disrupted the economy, particularly smaller businesses amid reports of many job losses.

Poor implementation of the Goods and Services Tax also gave rise to difficulties among many small and medium size businesses. Criticism has come from inside his own BJP, from elder leaders like Yashwant Sinha, even as the GDP grew 5.7 per cent in the April-June quarter, the slowest growth since the first quarter of 2014.

The positive ratings in spite of all this showed that people still had hope in Mr Modi, said analysts.

"Although there are reservations on the ground and in spite of demonetisation and GST, they feel their best bet is on him. There is no alternative around," said Dr N Bhaskara Rao of the Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies.

According to the survey, 85 per cent of respondents voiced trust in the national government.

Mr Modi's lowest ratings, at 50 per cent, were for his handling of communal relations or tensions between Muslims and Hindus and India's various castes and for a failure to curb pollution, which has blanketed the capital city of Delhi in a toxic cloud of smog.

The BJP coming to power has emboldened Hindu nationalists groups including so-called cow vigilantes, who have targeted Muslims.

"Women are particularly critical of how he has dealt with communal relations, as are people living in northern India. And rural Indians are less supportive than those in urban areas," said the survey, which also noted that neither communal issues nor pollution was a priority for Indians.

Still analysts pointed out that Mr Modi had not yet been able to fulfil his domestic agenda.

"On domestic affairs he has been only partially successful because he has not met the targets he had set for himself at the time of elections, more particularly employment, where he had promised to create jobs. With demonetisation, employment has actually gone down," said Mr D H Pai Panandikar, president of RPG Foundation, a private think-tank.

"And communal issues have been a negative factor."