NEW DELHI (AP) - India's Hindu nationalist opposition party is leading the incumbent Congress party in the run-up to this year's national elections in the world's biggest democracy, a poll released Wednesday says.
The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Narendra Modi, trounced Congress in recent state polls which were seen as a gauge of voter sentiment in the nation of 1.2 billion. The general election must be held by May.
The Pew Research Center poll said the Indian public, by a margin of more than three-to-one, would prefer BJP to lead the next government over Congress.
It said 63 percent of Indians prefer the BJP to lead the next government, 19 percent prefer Congress and 12 percent support other parties. BJP backing is consistent across age groups, the research found.
Pew, a Washington-based think tank, interviewed 2,464 randomly selected adults in states and territories that are home to roughly 91 percent of the Indian population. The poll, conducted between Dec. 7 and Jan. 12, has a margin of error of 3.8 percent.
Modi, the chief minister of western Gujarat state for the past 11 years, is credited with turning his state into an industrial haven. But critics question whether the Hindu nationalist chief can be a truly secular leader over India's many cultures.
Rahul Gandhi, heir to the country's Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, is leading the Congress party's struggling campaign.
Congress has said it will not formally declare Gandhi as its candidate for prime minister _ a bit of political maneuvering aimed at protecting the 43-year-old from being a scapegoat for his party's problems.
The Congress party has been battered by corruption scandals, internal feuding and an inability to deal with a stumbling economy and deep-rooted problems with poverty, infrastructure and education.
Modi also is facing his share of controversy. He has been accused of doing little to stop anti-Muslim riots in the state in 2002 which left more than 1,000 people dead, mostly Muslims.
Modi has denied any role in the violence and says he bears no responsibility for the killings. In December, he said that he had been "shaken to the core" by the violence and that his government responded to it swiftly and decisively.
Manmohan Singh has been India's prime minister for the past 10 years but said in January that he would not seek another term. A technocrat, he was chosen to fill the prime minister's seat in 2004 by Sonia Gandhi, the widow of assassinated Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Rahul's mother.
But Singh has been widely seen as a regent, keeping the seat warm until Rahul Gandhi was ready to take what some see as his birthright.
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