http://indiatoday.intoday.in/site/Story/108814/Cover Story/exit-route.html A mid-term slump is a fact of life for any government, but when it happens to one that has completed just 14 months of its five-year tenure, it is never good news. The news gets even worse for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Two months ago, he set a record of sorts when he became the longest serving prime minister from outside the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, having been in office continuously for six years. That record is now sullied by a dubious distinction. The 16th India Today-AC Nielsen-ORG-MARG poll, which was conducted in June when the UPA Government was celebrating the first anniversary of its second tenure, shows Singh languishing with the lowest approval rating for any prime minister since the days of the two mercifully brief United Front regimes headed by H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral. The survey makes for grim reading for the prime minister. Asked who according to them was most suited to be the prime minister, only 1 per cent of the 12,392 voters in 98 parliamentary constituencies spread across 19 states thought there was none better than the incumbent. Of the other 99 per cent, the largest number, 29 per cent, thought Rahul Gandhi was the best bet, 16 per cent yearned for a throwback to the days of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, 13 per cent felt UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi should be heading its government while 9 per cent of the voters were ready to overlook Narendra Modi's alleged failings to trust him with the top job. Manmohan came in 13th, behind, among others, last year's prime ministerial challenger L.K. Advani, the BSP's Mayawati, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, Home Minister P. Chidambaram, Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj and even BJP chief Nitin Gadkari. The poll comes as a shattering setback for the prime minister who emerged as the most popular choice only early last year after being in the top job for nearly five years. In seven opinion polls done between August 2004 and February 2008, he had been consistently overshadowed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi. In our last poll, conducted four months before the 15th general elections, for the first time voters showed a preference for Manmohan. The results of the Lok Sabha elections vindicated our poll as the UPA under Manmohan returned to office with a working majority. He is the least political of prime ministers but his impressive CV and record as an efficient administrator earned him the benefit of the voters doubt. But double digit inflation has ripped apart Manmohan's reputation for economic competence. On many other fronts, everything that could possibly go wrong has indeed gone wrong. From being the toast of the middle classes, Singh has become everyone's favourite whipping boy. There is a Minister for Agriculture and Food supplies who spends more time on his alternate job in cricket administration. Yet when asked who was responsible for the runaway increase in food prices, twice as many people (33 per cent) pointed fingers at Manmohan rather than Food Minister Sharad Pawar (17 per cent). Worse, people have no faith in this Government's ability to make their lives less miserable. Asked if they expected the economic situation to get better or worse in the next 12 months, 34 per cent saw it becoming worse while only 15 per cent thought things would take a turn for the better and a majority at 43 per cent thought the status quo will continue. The survey contains several other warning signals for the Government, particularly on issues relating to its handling of internal security and Maoist terror. Almost 28 per cent of voters thought the government's handling of internal security was poor while 23 per cent felt it was good and only 3 per cent found it outstanding. Asked if the army should be called out to hunt down Maoists and Naxals, a resounding 70 per cent were in favour of it while only 19 per cent opposed the idea. It was a clear rap on the Government's knuckles for its knee-jerk reactions to every Maoist assault, maybe even public disapproval of the Government's rejection of Chidambaram's request for army help to contain the Naxalite menace in some of its worst affected areas. While the poll clearly suggests that the rot is creeping in, all is not lost. At least not yet. Asked which party they will vote for if the Lok Sabha elections were held in the near future, 36 per cent voted for the Congress and 31 for the BJP, 5 per cent for the BSP with the rest scattered among more than 40 parties. Seat projections on the basis of votes gathered by different parties indicate the allies of the UPA getting 34.6 per cent of the votes accounting for 246-256 seats, eight less than its current strength while the BJP-led NDA with a projected vote share of 26.4 per cent stands to get between 168-178 seats, up 14 seats. The on-again-off-again Third Front and the rest of the parties, while together having a larger vote share of 39 per cent, still have to settle for 119 seats, six less than now. Life for the aam admi may be becoming unbearable, but 40 per cent of voters think the Government is trying to live up to its promises, slightly less than the 44 per cent who think otherwise. More voters (36 per cent) think the Congress is better equipped to solve the problems of the country than the BJP (30) and while 35 per cent voters feel the Congress is more capable of heading a coalition, only 28 per cent feel that about the BJP. If things still seem to be working for the Congress, it has a lot to do with the BJP. Flagging for long after its unexpected loss in 2004, the party has not been able to pick up the pieces and little has gone right for the Right. Gadkari was brought in to put the house in order, but the opinion poll perhaps sums up public perception about the new party chief. Only 4 per cent think he is doing an outstanding job, 19 per cent say he is good while 18 per cent say he is not up to it while the rest don't know or probably don't care. And that is the Congress's best bet. The poll shows that people want Rahul Gandhi to take over sooner or later. In the meantime, if things get better for the average Indian, they will for Manmohan too. That should ensure he exits gracefully.