Thousands of overseas Indians cheered Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a campaign-style rally in one of Sydney’s biggest sporting arenas.
Modi, who is visiting Australia for the first time since 2014, will look to use his popularity among expatriate Indians to boost support at home ahead of the general elections next year, after his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lost a key state election in southern India this month.
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Thousands of supporters thronged the 21,000-capacity Qudos Bank Arena in Sydney Olympic Park, one of the city’s biggest indoor stadiums which has hosted international stars like Bruce Springsteen and the Backstreet Boys, though there were significant numbers of empty seats as Modi began his speech.
The Indian leader, who arrived to cheers from the crowd after a programme of song and dance from across India, paid tribute to the many connections between the two countries, from cricket and tennis to films and Indian street food in Sydney.
‘Modi is the boss!’
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese played the warm-up act and emcee.
To chants of “Modi! Modi! Modi!”, Albanese introduced his “dear friend” to a jazzed-up crowd of Indian-Australians, who he praised for making Australia “stronger and more inclusive”.
“The last time I saw someone on the stage here was Bruce Springsteen and he didn’t get the welcome that Prime Minister Modi has got,” Albanese said.
“Prime Minister Modi is the boss!” he said, breaking into a broad smile and boasting the pair had met six times in the past year.
Australia and India are closer friends and partners than ever before.
— Anthony Albanese (@AlboMP) May 23, 2023
It was an unusually personal show of support for Modi – a Hindu nationalist leader who faces re-election next year and has been criticised for sustained democratic backsliding and discrimination against India’s 200 million Muslims and other minorities.
Modi reciprocated his host’s lavish welcome, offering a long list of interests that bind the two countries: from cricket to curry, yoga to Masterchef.
“The most important foundation of our ties is mutual trust and mutual respect,” he said in Hindi, promising trade between the two countries would double in the next five years.
He also announced the opening of a new consulate in Brisbane.
Modi is known to put up big shows during his overseas trips and has addressed packed stadiums in the United Kingdom, the United States and other countries that have large expatriate Indian populations.
A chartered Qantas flight rebranded as “Modi Airways” brought in fans from Melbourne, while “Modi Express” was being chartered from Queensland, ABC News reported.
At a bilateral meeting on Wednesday, the two leaders will discuss trade and investment, renewable energy, and defence and security cooperation.
“Australia and India share a commitment to a stable, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific,” Albanese said in a statement.
Albanese in March this year visited India, including Modi’s home state of Gujarat, during a four-day visit.
India is Australia’s sixth largest trading partner, while about 750,000 people in Australia claim Indian ancestry. Almost 90,000 Indian students are enrolled at Australian universities, the largest overseas contingent after China.
Despite his popularity and strongman image, Modi is a divisive figure at home and abroad. Critics say religious polarisation has increased since his Hindu nationalist BJP came to power in 2014, and that the country’s minority Muslims are being marginalised.
Under Modi, “the world’s largest democracy” has become much less free and more dangerous for his critics, according to Human Rights Watch’s Elaine Pearson.
“Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government has been tightening its grip on civil society, using draconian laws to arrest and intimidate activists, journalists, opposition leaders, academics, peaceful protesters, and critics of government policies,” she said.
A BBC documentary, banned in India, that questioned Modi’s actions during the Gujarat riots two decades ago, will be aired in the Australian parliament on Wednesday, SBS News reported, quoting a group called “We the Diaspora”.
Dozens of people campaigning for an independent state in India’s Punjab province protested outside the venue, shouting anti-Modi slogans and waving flags of the so-called Khalistan movement.
Modi, who is known for never addressing a news conference, will not be speaking to the media at any of his engagements in Australia.