“Prime Minister Modi is the boss!” – exclaimed Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, in obvious awe of the Indian Prime Minister’s rockstar appeal with diaspora audiences around the world.
There is nothing particularly unusual about a popular musician or a sports star filling stadium out to full capacity. But a politician? Now, that is rather unusual! The fact that stadiums and other venues in the West are packed to the brim with noisy cheering crowds for the Prime Minister of India is, to the amazement of other world leaders, now becoming quite the norm.
Mr Modi has once again repeated his phenomenal crowd pulling power during his visit to Australia on May 22-24. Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese heaped praise on Modi at the Qudos Bank Arena in Sydney in front of around 20,000 non-resident Indian fans, comparing him with rockstar Bruce Springsteen nicknamed “The Boss”.
Sense of pride
It demonstrates his profound connect with the masses of India’s diaspora living abroad. There may be many reasons for this, but arguably the strongest one is pride. Narendra Modi has restored the pride of both Indians living in India and the diaspora abroad. His investments in infrastructure both physical and digital have laid the foundations for India to become a new global manufacturing powerhouse. With $418 billion in manufacturing exports in Financial Year 2021-22, India is starting to take the manufacturing baton from China, whilst plugging the gaps in basics like banking, electricity and water that enable poorer rural Indians to live with dignity.
Modi’s visit to Australia was strategically significant, coming as it does amidst serious geopolitical change in the world. Russia and NATO are locked in a deadly proxy war in Ukraine, even while the possibility of a direct war between the military superpowers looms large. China continues to probe at the borders of all its neighbours barring Russia, cementing ties with Moscow and increasing the possibility of the West and its partners (including India) having to prepare for confrontation with a Moscow-Beijing axis. Concern over the rise of an aggressive China lies at the heart of the vigorous Australian engagement of Modi. The rise of India, which has been substantially engineered by Modi and his subordinates in the Indian government, makes the country an attractive strategic partner and investment destination.
The visit to Australia was notable for the signing of bilateral agreements on green energy and migration, with tens of thousands of Indians having migrated to Australia over the past few years. Australia is a major net energy supplier and can help contribute to India’s mission to maximise green energy use via investment in hydrogen-based technology such as fuel cells. This could revolutionise energy generation for both countries.
Centre of attention
Furthermore, Modi has also made India the centre of attention at the famed G7 group of the world’s most wealthy nations. Despite not being a wealthy nation on a per capita basis, (India is quite some distance away from this by any definition, explosive economic growth notwithstanding) India is now a frequent attendee at G7 meetings. He interacted with Western and Japanese leaders at the G7 leaders’ summit Hiroshima, Japan. Particularly notable was his meeting with Indian origin Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of the United Kingdom, where progress on the India-UK trade deal was reviewed by both men. This is an important strategic initiative for both countries. India is a labour rich, capital deficit country where elite technical skills are in high demand.
Britain has almost the opposite challenge of relatively slow population growth but very high levels of capital. It makes sense for both countries to cooperate economically, as their strengths and weaknesses dovetail strongly with each other. Challenges abound in the bilateral relationship (the UK’s struggle to contain anti-India extremism, limitations on immigration, and securing Indian diplomatic premises) but the potential for a transformational cooperation powered by a great new trade deal exists.
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The coming weeks and months show an even more packed diplomatic schedule for Modi and his team. He will be hosted by US President Joe Biden in Washington in June 21-24, a strategically vital meeting where India and the US are expected to sign major agreements that allow advanced US military technology, including crown jewel jet engine technology (which is almost never shared by America even with key partners such as Israel and Japan) to be shared with India. American jet engines are expected to be manufactured in India going forward, demonstrating that even the US acknowledges India’s advancing infrastructure and manufacturing prowess.
Biden also praised Modi’s ability to pull a large crowd, telling Modi that he is “causing him a real problem” in having enough tickets available for public engagement event in Washington next month, such is the demand among prominent Indian Americans to see him. It also demonstrates that India remains an indispensable partner for the US to counter China, which is now threatening Taiwan and has also caused violent border clashes with India in June 2020.
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On July 14, Modi will make a visit to France as the guest of honour for France’s famous Bastille Day parade (honouring the storming of the Bastille prison which started the historic French Revolution, and celebrating France). Indian fighter jets and soldiers will take part in the parade. India is being feted as a valued partner by nearly every major Western power.
Modi is expected to sign a deal with French President Emmanuel Macron for 26 Rafale naval fighter jets, as India looks to diversify defence suppliers. There may be further agreements on the transfer of other advanced French military technologies to India, such as nuclear submarine propulsion, which may not be publicly announced, and demonstrates India’s growing role in securing French interests abroad.
There are around a million French people in the vicinity of the Indian Ocean, who could easily be threatened by an expansionist China in the near future, besides India sitting aside sea lanes that oversee trillions of dollars of European trade interests. It makes sense that India is seen as the best bet for France to secure its people and interests in Asia, having demonstrated no aggressive tendencies even while developing into a powerful nation in its own right.
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World comes to India
Last but not least, there is the G20 Leaders’ Summit in September 9-10 in New Delhi. This is a change from India going to the world, to the world coming to India in a very real sense. All of the world’s major leaders – including China’s Xi Jinping and possibly Russia’s Vladimir Putin will be coming to India. That India invited Putin despite Western pressure to distance itself from Russia shows the independence of Indian foreign policy under Modi and his outstanding External Affairs Minister, S Jaishankar. It also demonstrates the potential for G20 Delhi to be a chance for peaceful mediation by India, possibly ending in a potential resolution of the ongoing war in Ukraine, however unlikely that may seem at the moment.
Modi’s ability to pack out large stadium with tens of thousands of people was first demonstrated at Madison Square Garden, New York, and Wembley Stadium in the UK, both in 2014. India has come a very long way in the nine years since then. Many would agree that potential has turned into delivery in the economic and diplomatic spheres. As India begins to grow into a top tier global economy and gears up for a general election next year amid Opposition divisions, the diaspora can expect more such stadium engagements to cheer for “rockstar Modi”.
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Jeevan Vipinachandran is a UK-based writer and political analyst specialising in political conflict and counter-terrorism. With a Masters in Comparative Politics: Conflict Studies from the London School of Economics (LSE), his core interest is in international relations with a special focus on the rise of India and its impact on the world stage.