NEW DELHI (Reuters) - A third of voters want Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi to be their next prime minister, placing him well ahead of his rivals in general elections due by May, according to the latest in a series of opinion polls that show rising support for the opposition candidate.
The survey, conducted by pollsters CSDS for the CNN-IBN television channel, also forecast that Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would win 192-210 seats in the 543-seat assembly, while the ruling Congress party would only bag 92-108 seats.
Given India's diverse and fragmented electorate, neither the BJP nor any other party is expected to win the 272 seats needed for an outright majority. The biggest party will seek to form a coalition with regional parties.
Modi, who has presided over rapid economic growth during more than 12 years as the chief minister of Gujarat, has been wooing voters by pointing to his track record as a leader who cuts red tape and attracts investment.
"People are looking forward to leadership, they think a strong leader will solve their problems," said CSDS director Sanjay Kumar. "They don't want a dictator, but they want someone who can take strong decisions."
By contrast, Congress has shied away from naming its prime ministerial candidate until after the polls, even though many party workers had wanted Rahul Gandhi, a scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that leads the party, to take on the role.
After a decade in power, Congress faces public anger over a string of corruption scandals, slow policymaking and economic growth hitting a decade-low.
While 34 per cent of voters surveyed picked Modi as their first choice for prime minister, only 15 per cent chose Gandhi, according to the CSDS poll. Sonia Gandhi, Rahul's mother and Congress party chief, was in third place with five per cent.
The survey's national-level forecasts were released on Friday, while state-level forecasts were released in stages earlier this week.
Another survey released on Thursday, conducted by pollsters CVoter for the India Today media group, found that almost half of respondents wanted Modi versus 15 per cent who backed Gandhi.
The CVoter poll forecast that the BJP would win 188 seats in the election, more than double the expected tally for Congress.
India's diverse political landscape makes election results notoriously hard to forecast, particularly in terms of how many seats a party might win, versus the more straightforward calculation of a party's share of the overall vote.
The CSDS poll surveyed just under 18,600 voters in 18 states, with a margin of error that varied from state to state.
CVoter surveyed almost 21,800 respondents across all of the 28 states, with a three percent margin of error at the national level and five percent margin at the state level.
Both surveys showed that the BJP has little or no presence in India's prosperous southern states, where at least one alliance will likely be needed to secure a national majority.
Additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Gareth Jones