Every survey throws up the same result. Narendra Modi beats Rahul Gandhi in a leadership face-off. What varies from one poll to another is the size of the gap. And the latest Open/ C-Voter survey is no different. Modi trumps Rahul by a whopping 10- percentage points. It doesn't matter how they slice the piece, he comes up on top -- other than a few remarkable exceptions.
Take, for instance, the geographical breakdown which offers a bit of a shocker. Modi trails Rahul by one point in the West -- yes, that's right! In the West, which is defined as Maharashtra, Gujarat, Goa and Rajasthan. If that doesn't evoke a suitable gasp of surprise, the numbers in the South will. Modi collectively outstrips Rahul by 55-26 in the states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Kerala.
The magazine is cautious in interpreting the significance of his Southern advantage: "While the survey does not reflect electoral reality—for instance, the South is unlikely to support the BJP in such numbers—it does seem to indicate that the shifting demographics of a country that is urbanising and where incomes are growing strongly favour Modi, who can only expect to see his support base grow."
The editors also insist, however, that their sample size and methodology is fully representative. Each story pegged to the poll comes with this bold-faced claim: "Thus, the calling data fully covers India, both geographically and demographically."
If we take them at their word, then, without a urban, high income or education skew in the sample, Modi still comes out way ahead in the South. But if we are to take the South results seriously, what should we make of the bizarre outcome in the West -- which includes the home state of Gujarat where Modi just won a rousing reelection? This is a region where he surely enjoys far greater name recognition than any southern state. And they are also far more likely to be familiar with his record of governance.
Apart from this puzzle, some of the results underline what we already know about Modi's base. He does very well with upper and middle income groups, but lags 46-52 in the low income segment. The same holds for levels of education. Those with only primary education or less are more likely to support Rahul by three percentage points.
In terms of caste and religion breakup, Modi loses out with Dalits (34-51), Tribals (44-49) and muslims, where the numbers are shockingly low. A minus-five percentage points support Modi compared to the 69 percent who back Rahul. His numbers with upper caste Hindus are, as expected, dizzyingly high (62-31).
For all the fuss made over Modi's allure for the female voter, he faces a daunting gender gap. When it comes to his strongest suit, governance, he does well with men who prefer him by 20 points, but the women are far less enthusiastic (39-36). But he loses out entirely with them on what Open calls 'emotive issues' -- for some odd reason -- such as taking care of minorities, resolving Kashmir, maintaining communal harmony, working well with coalition partners and the opposition etc. Men still support him (38-31), albeit by a smaller margin, but the women prefer Rahul by 5 points.
It is perhaps the first clear indication that the 'strongman' persona does not resonate as well with women as with men.
The magazine spells out the lessons the numbers hold for Rahul -- "focus on categories and issues where the gap is small or in his favour" -- but offers no analysis of what Modi may need to do, perhaps because he is already far ahead.
But the data do raise the big question: Can we have a prime minister of India who enjoys little support from the poor, Dalits, tribals and Muslims (the largest minority in the nation), and evokes ambivalence in nearly half of the population, i.e. women. They may represent the weaker sections of society, but taken together, they raise a big question mark about Modi's ability to turn himself into a truly national leader.
Irrespective of his survey numbers, to win elections in the real world, he will have appeal to all Indians, and not just those of a certain income or level of education or caste identity. And even if he were to win without their support, can he effectively govern without it?