Secrecy Over Ticketing But Empty Seats: My Experience of Modi's Sydney Event

It was striking that out of over one million Indians residing in Australia, not even 18,500 people turned up to listen to Narendra Modi in the stadium.

Upon entering the stadium, I could immediately see empty chairs scattered throughout the expansive venue. The section near the stage, where I had entered, was densely packed with attendees, although finding a seat was easy. However, on the other side of the stage, the first level was only half-filled, while people occupied sporadic spots on the second and fourth levels. A significant number of chairs remained unoccupied in that area.

This struck me as surprising, since the tickets had been distributed for free, and registration had been actively promoted through WhatsApp groups for weeks. Curiously, there seemed to be a veil of secrecy surrounding the ticket distribution process, lending an air of privacy to the entire event.

Narendra Modi’s programme in Australia was highly anticipated, considering it was scheduled after a nine-year gap. Since February, there has been widespread awareness of Modi’s visit to Australia. However, it remained uncertain whether a public event similar to the previous occasion would take place.

Discussions about the absence of active ‘Friends of BJP’ during the previous programme were sparked when one of the former presidents of the organisation received a tamga (medal) of being “one of the worst rapists in Sydney’s recent history” from an Australian court after being convicted of raping multiple women. This led to speculation regarding the whereabouts of the Friends of BJP members during the previous event.

In April, messages started circulating on WhatsApp announcing a programme titled ‘Australia Welcomes Modi’, where organisations could register to become welcome partners and receive tickets for their members. Further investigation revealed that the programme would be organised by an unfamiliar entity called the Indian Australian Diaspora Foundation (IADF). Details about the organisation, including its ownership and website, were unavailable until a few days before the event. Finally, it was discovered that the organisation had registered itself only in February.

Nevertheless, Modi’s supporters were not in short supply in Australia, and WhatsApp messages began circulating about obtaining tickets for the programme. The IADF website provided a registration link exclusively for organisations and numerous entities registered. According to the IADF, over 350 organisations completed the registration. Two weeks before the event, the IADF announced that more than 20,000 individuals had registered for a stadium with a capacity of 18,500 seats, leaving no seats available for the general public, or those unaffiliated with any organisation. The IADF stated they would allocate some tickets to the general public and opened registration for that purpose, but it closed within two days. It was mentioned that large screens would be installed outside the stadium for those who did not secure tickets, allowing them to watch the proceedings. This indicated that there would be no standing room inside the stadium and the possibility of a significant crowd gathering outside.

There were many empty seats in the Sydney stadium. Photo: Vivek Asri

Media personnel had arrived expecting to cover both the interior and exterior areas, prompting them to bring multiple crews. Upon entering the hall, I assumed I might have to stand to witness the programme since vacating my seat would likely result in losing it, preventing me from taking photographs or engaging in other activities.

However, the scene inside differed from my expectations. The hall was nearly half empty, including the section designated for VIP guests, leaving people perplexed about the abundance of unoccupied seats. The person beside me remarked, “A temple festival last month had a larger attendance.”

An emcee on stage announced that 25,000 people had already arrived. A journalist from the Daily Mail, who happened to be sitting next to me, looked at me in astonishment and asked, “Why are they claiming that 25,000 people have arrived when the stadium’s capacity is only 18,500, and there are empty seats?” I smiled in response, and she reciprocated the gesture.

Once the stadium gates were closed, eight to ten young men pleaded to be allowed inside, only to be left disappointed. Meanwhile, on one side, a group of some families sat, visibly upset, as they were denied entry due to having children under the age of four.

Inside, from my seat near the stage, cameras were positioned all around, and Indian journalists were conducting live broadcasts for their respective channels. One reporter, in particular, loudly described the hall as “jam-packed” and the atmosphere as “electrifying”.

Indeed, the atmosphere was charged with energy. Chants of “Modi, Modi” echoed from different sections of the crowd. Among the people gathered along the pathway leading to the stage, a few individuals were known for spreading hate messages in Australian WhatsApp groups.

On one side, a small group representing the Vohra community stood dressed in their traditional attire. However, my attempts to interview them before entering were unsuccessful, as none agreed to speak. I was also curious to know how many Sikhs were present in the hall, considering that a few days before the event, the IADF had publicly announced a “Welcome Committee” that included several Sikhs. Yet, surprisingly, only a handful of Sikhs could be spotted in the audience.

While I lacked comprehensive information about how the event was portrayed in the Indian media, it was striking that out of over one million Indians residing in Australia, not even 18,500 people turned up to listen to Narendra Modi in the stadium.

Nevertheless, the Australian government actively participated in the event, with several prominent ministers in attendance. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese even lauded the Indian prime minister as “the boss”. However, the following morning, he faced questions from journalists who asked whether it was appropriate to share a stage with a leader with tyrannical tendencies. This line of questioning brought him considerable embarrassment.

Each time the event received coverage in the Australian media, it triggered discussions about the human rights situation in India. Although the chants of “Modi, Modi” may have overshadowed these concerns among BJP supporters, the topic had seeped into conversations among common people. While waiting at a bus stop the day after the event, an unfamiliar Australian woman approached me and inquired if I had attended. She expressed her amazement at people travelling from Brisbane, Canberra and Melbourne on chartered buses and a flight dubbed “Modi Airways”.

She remarked, “But I’ve heard that Narendra Modi has caused significant hardship to minorities, and despite his popularity, many people also dislike him.”

Vivek Asri is a journalist and author based in Australia.