Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has defended his appearance beside Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a raucous rally in Sydney on Tuesday night, pushing back on claims the leader of the world’s largest democracy is a tyrannical ruler who has gone soft on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.
As some commentators expressed unease with the populist flavour of the event at Sydney Olympic Park, Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong said the rally was a vivid demonstration of the strength of the Australia-India relationship and the vibrancy of the Indian diaspora.
Albanese lavished praise on Modi at the event on Tuesday night, saying his counterpart had received a more rapturous reception at Qudos Bank Arena than Bruce Springsteen before dubbing him “the boss”.
Albanese and Modi on Wednesday signed a new migration and labour mobility partnership and announced the creation of a new joint green hydrogen taskforce.
“India will soon become the third-largest economy in the world,” Modi said following the meeting at Sydney’s Admiralty House.
“We are creating a favourable ecosystem for attracting more investment in India, in fields such as electronic, defense and other sectors. And I think that there is huge potential for further cooperation between India and Australia between our private sectors.”
Albanese began the morning with an interview on Channel Seven’s Sunrise in which presenter David Koch expressed amazement the Indian leader had recorded approval ratings of 80 per cent in a recent poll.
“He’s sort of reduced press freedoms, he discriminates against minorities, he’s accused of watering down democracy,” Koch asked. “He sort of, he seems a bit of a tyrant?”
Albanese said it was “not up to me to pass a comment on some of the internal politics in India which, as a democracy, has a range of views, which is a good thing”.
“The economic growth that we’ve seen in India is extraordinary,” Albanese said, saying the nation had achieved remarkable progress since he travelled there as a backpacker in 1991.
“And Prime Minister Modi is certainly popular, not with everyone; it’s a democracy, but he’s popular with a majority of people.”
Albanese was later asked on Channel’s Today show if Modi had “gone a little soft on Russia” over the war in Ukraine and whether Australia could rely on India military if there is a “dust up” with China.
“India and China have a fraught relationship,” Albanese replied.
“There have been skirmishes on the border and issues between them.”
While Australia has denounced President Vladimir Putin’s government and supplied Ukraine with weapons and financial aid, India has abstained from several high-profile United Nations votes condemning Russia’s invasion.
India depends on Russia for over half of its defence equipment and has dramatically increased its purchases of Russian oil and gas since the war began.
Leading human rights groups have accused India of democratic backsliding under Modi, accusing him of persecuting India’s sizeable Muslim minority and restricting media freedom.
Questioned by ABC presenter James Valentine about whether the Modi rally was “a little bit frightening” and “not something we associate with our favourite leaders”, Wong said: “Look, we have a different political culture here, different style of democracy. But it is important to remember India is the world’s largest democracy.”
Wong said the government “will continue to put our view, respectfully, about the importance of human rights, about the importance of freedom of expression and other rights”.
“We take that position whether it’s in this relationship or in any other relationship,” she said.
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