Australia is bracing for Modi-mania when the Indian Prime Minister heads Down Under for the G20 on November 15 before hitting Canberra for a bilateral visit.
A train dubbed the “Modi Express” will whisk fans from Melbourne to Sydney, serving spicy Gujarati cuisine. On arrival, supporters will flock to the Allphones Arena to see the man with the 56-inch chest (so he says) in the flesh. In Melbourne, Narendra Modi will get VIP access to the city’s beating heart,with a 1000-plate banquet at the Melbourne Cricket Ground hosted by Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
Judging by Modi’s trip to the United States — he sold out Madison Square Garden’s 18,000 seats with dancers, a live portrait artist painting his likeness on stage, and for some strange reason Hugh Jackman — anything could happen in Australia.
Modi-mania did not just give India its first majority government in 30 years after the May national elections — it also changed Australia. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has an organised support base in Australia which has been spreading across the country since a few months before India’s elections. Overseas Friends of BJP (OFBJP) Australia was formed by a group of Indian expats at a public function in Sydney in September 2013. Amid the local Indian-Australians celebrating, visiting Indian BJP politician Venkaiah Naidu lent some serious political clout to the occasion. He went on to win the ministry of urban development after India’s election.
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OFBJP Australia is one of many OFBJP branches around the world, with a central party unit in Delhi co-ordinating overseas chapters. In Australia it was initially established as a not-for-profit association, funded out of the pockets of its office bearers. Membership is free, and people who come to events chip in to cover costs.
“BJP has had these support groups overseas for the last maybe 15 or 18 years, but the number of BJP groups have been increasing in the last few years quite rapidly, which is a sign that BJP is gaining support among Indian diaspora,” said OFBJP Australia’s 34-year-old president, Balesh Singh Dhankhar.
OFBJP Australia was busy campaigning Down Under during India’s election. During a key BJP campaign gimmick, “Chai Par Charcha” (which means talk over tea), Modi held mass public Q&A sessions around India via an online video chat service. OFBJP Australia extended it even further, setting up public Chai Par Charcha events in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia, attended by about 6000 expats all up. There are 300,000 Indian migrants in Australia, going by 2011 census data.
After BJP’s landslide win expat Indians began lining up to join OFBJP Australia. The group now has 1300 full-time members and more than 3000 subscribers.
“We started with chapters in Victoria and NSW … then we opened a chapter in Queensland, we opened a chapter in South Australia and we opened a chapter in ACT. Now we’re going to open a chapter in Western Australia very soon, and NT is also on the cards,” Dhankhar said.
Among the objectives listed on its website, OBJP Australia says it is striving towards “projecting a positive and correct image of India and its people in the Australian and foreign media and correcting any distortions”, promoting the philosophy of “integral Humanism”, fostering ties between Indians and Australians, and strengthening social bonds among Australian Indians “irrespective of region, religion, race, creed and colour”.
The group doesn’t fundraise directly for BJP, but directs donations to BJP coffers in India. It drums up expat support for Modi’s various development projects, including recent campaigns to build toilets — many rural people don’t have them — and clean up the Ganga River, which over the years has been turned into a drain glugging waste from numerous sewers and factories. Modi called for cashed-up expat Indians to help out financially with both projects.
“The way we define our role as OFBJP is this: we want to foster and nurture the relationship between Australia and India. And we want to present India in the Australian community in a better light. If there is any misinformation or wrong representation then we want to help in clearing that. Of course in representing BJP we keep in close co-ordination with our BJP leaders, but we also try to build very good relationships with Australian polity as well,” Dhankhar said.
British Indian expat and Labor politician Meghnad Desai says Indian politicians of all stripes have long enjoyed support from groups overseas but since Modi came along, “there is no doubt that the organisation is better and the fans more enthusiastic”.
“Modi is a star and has been for a long time for Indians abroad,” Desai said.
OFBJP Australia is among a coalition of local Indian community groups, together called the Indian Australian Community Foundation, which is helping arrange the Allphones Arena show in Sydney on November 17.
They expect to fill the 21,000-seat venue. Tickets are free, so you can go along and judge the brightness of Modi’s star for yourself — if you can get a seat.