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Politics Indian PM Modi’s Toronto speech expected to draw nearly 10,000

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attends the official opening of the Hannover Messe industrial trade fair in Hanover, central Germany on April 12, 2015. Mr. Modi’s three-day trip to Canada marks the first bilateral visit by a sitting Indian prime minister to Canada in more than 40 years.

Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images

They chanted his name in New York's Madison Square Garden. They broke into cheers when someone called him a rock star during a speech in Sydney.

Now Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to take the stage at a hockey rink in Toronto on Wednesday, where almost 10,000 people will gather for a chance to see the world-famous politician speak. The event is a key opportunity for Mr. Modi to court Canada's influential Indian diaspora, as he seeks to bolster economic ties with Canada and build on a global network of political supporters.

Planning for the event began months ago, when leaders from the Indo-Canadian community began seeking donations to cover the cost of renting a venue for Mr. Modi's speech.

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They consulted with their counterparts in the United States, who had organized the Madison Square Garden event, and met with an official from Mr. Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party party, who visited Toronto twice in recent months to help prepare for the visit.

Mr. Modi's three-day trip marks the first bilateral visit by a sitting Indian prime minister to Canada in more than 40 years. He is expected to attract a mix of raucous fans and sign-wielding protesters during many of his public events, which include a tour of a memorial to the Air India disaster and visits to Sikh and Hindu places of worship.

He will sit down with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa, meet with the heads of banks and pension funds in Toronto, and attend an official banquet with Mr. Harper and other government officials in Vancouver.

But the central event for many Indo-Canadians will be Wednesday night's speech at Ricoh Coliseum, a hockey arena in downtown Toronto that organizers are expecting to fill with about 9,700 of Mr. Modi's fans. Azad Kumar Kaushik, president of the National Alliance of Indo-Canadians, said the group received close to 15,000 requests for the free tickets within days of them being advertised.

So far, organizers have received more than 1,400 requests from people hoping to volunteer at the event.

"It's like a machine, with each piece doing its own job. That's how I'm looking at it," Mr. Kaushik said, after listing the ways community members have contributed to the event. "But the machine is moving, it's well-oiled, it's working and functioning, and I'm very optimistic it will be a great show."

Several members of the Alliance's organizing committee travelled to Ottawa last Thursday to extend a formal invitation for Mr. Harper to speak at the Ricoh event. Mr. Harper agreed, organizers said, and is scheduled to speak ahead of the Indian Prime Minister's address.

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Tanvi Madan, a fellow in the Brookings Institution's foreign-policy program, said other Indian politicians have not attempted the kinds of big-ticket speeches Mr. Modi has been holding abroad. "This kind of large-scale event is new," she said, referring to Mr. Modi's speeches in Australia and the United States. "It's much more reflective of the kind of campaign Mr. Modi ran at home."

The speeches can serve several purposes, she said. First, they may help encourage people living abroad to contribute to India's economic development. They can also mobilize international support for Mr. Modi and his BJP party. And in countries such as Canada, which is home to more than a million people of Indian origin, the speeches can serve as a reminder of the potential influence a well-organized diaspora group can wield.

Mr. Modi has been embraced by many in the international community for his promises to reform and expand India's economy, but he is also a controversial figure whose presence in Canada is expected to attract protesters.

An organization called Sikhs for Justice has called on the Canadian government to prosecute Mr. Modi for torture and genocide over his alleged role in deadly religious riots that broke out in Gujarat while he was that state's chief minister. The group says it also expects to see protesters call for a referendum on independence in India's Punjab state, which has a large Sikh population.

Organizers of the Ricoh event say they've learned from Mr. Modi's earlier international visits, and plan to open their doors hours before the Indian Prime Minister is scheduled to speak to ensure they have time to check every attendee's photo identification against the name on their ticket. They have warned attendees that bags will not be allowed in the venue.

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