Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese heaped praise on Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, likening him to American rock star Bruce Springsteen in a gushing introductory speech at a stadium on Tuesday.
Modi is making his first visit to Sydney in nine years as he gears up to contest national elections next year – and as Australia looks to build economic bridges with the world’s most populous market at a time when relations with another Asian giant, China, have soured.
Standing on stage at the Qudos Bank Arena on Tuesday, a sprawling entertainment venue in the city’s Olympic Park, Albanese played emcee and warm up act.
“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.
“You have brought the spirit of the world’s biggest democracy to Australia,” Albanese said of his “dear friend,” adding the Indian leader has helped strengthen Australia’s democracy.
“Prime Minister Modi is the boss!” he added, to thunderous applause from a crowd dominated by Australia’s Indian diaspora.
Originally planned as a summit for leaders from the Quad, which includes the United States and Japan, Modi’s trip to Australia comes as Canberra is trying to bolster its relationship with New Delhi in a bid to grow economic ties and reinforce their strategic partnership, as the West attempts to thwart the rise of an increasingly assertive China.
“In the language of cricket, our ties have entered the T20 mode,” Modi said during a joint appearance with Albanese. “Our democratic values are the foundation of our ties. Our relations are based on mutual trust and respect. The Indian community in Australia is a living bridge between our countries.”
Modi also met with several “prominent Australian personalities,” according to a statement from the Indian government, including international chef Sarah Todd and Australian singer Guy Sebastian.
In a series of videos published to Modi’s Twitter account, several of these personalities were filmed praising the leader.
“He was so warm and so kind,” Sebastian said of their interaction.
His warm welcome is symbolic of his immense public appeal among many Indians living overseas, as well as his emergence as a key player in the global order.
But the leader and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have also come under increasing scrutiny for a clampdown on free speech and discriminatory policies toward minority groups in the secular democracy of 1.4 billion, something Western leaders rarely address publicly when Modi visits.
When asked by reporters whether Albanese will press Modi on some of these issues, the Australian leader skirted the issue, saying he had a “respectful” relationship with his Indian counterpart.
“India is, of course, the world’s largest democracy. Here in Australia, of course, people have a right to express their views in a peaceful way, and people, we all have different views about people in politics,” Albanese said. “Australia, of course, always stands up for human rights, wherever it occurs anywhere in the world.”
India has also repeatedly abstained from votes condemning Russia at the United Nations, instead reiterating a need for “diplomacy and dialogue,” while buying up huge amounts of Moscow’s oil despite western sanctions over the invasion of Ukraine.
Albanese said he respected that India “is responsible for its own international relations” and acknowledged the South Asian nation’s history of non-alignment.
“India is a great supporter of peace and security and stability in our region,” he said.
A busy week for Modi
Modi’s Australia visit caps a busy week of diplomatic activity and travel.
Over the weekend, he was in Papua New Guinea, where he met with Prime Minister James Marape and pledged his support for the Pacific Islands.
Days earlier Modi had met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on the sidelines of the Group of Seven (G7) summit in Japan – the first time they had come face-to-face since Russia’s invasion began.
And next month, US President Joe Biden will host Modi at the White House.
Modi’s diplomatic flurry comes in a pivotal year for the leader.
India has assumed the Group of 20 (G20) presidency this year, playing host to a series of important events in the country, while marketing itself as a leader of the Global South. Modi is also gearing up for an election year in 2024, seeking to secure a momentous second decade in power.
And while India grows increasingly close to the West and its allies, critics have accused Western leaders of turning a blind eye to some of New Delhi’s alleged human rights abuses playing out at home.
Earlier this year, India banned a BBC documentary critical of Modi’s alleged role in the deadly 2002 Gujarat riots, in which more than 1,000 people – mostly Muslims – were killed, in a move lambasted by free speech advocates.
In March, Rahul Gandhi, the former leader of India’s main opposition political party and one of the few figures that has the kind of star power and name recognition needed to challenge Modi, was stripped of his lawmaker status after he was handed a two-year jail sentence for defamation.
Critics of the BJP and Gandhi’s supporters say the case is politically motivated.
Earlier this month, Modi’s party lost its only stronghold in the country’s south after Karnataka state voted in favor of Gandhi’s Congress Party.
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Sydney as Australia's capital. Canberra is the capital.