Hard Pass

Inside Steve Bannon’s Failed Breitbart India Scheme

Before he was the president’s right-hand man, Steve Bannon was bent on world domination of a different kind.

Atul Tater

If Stephen K. Bannon had had his way, there would already be a Breitbart India.

Well before he entered the Trump White House with an eye toward influencing and affecting foreign policy, Bannon was already trying to wield his Breitbart media empire to influence the politics of foreign democracies, in favor of right-wing nationalist upheavals.

Until he became President Trump’s chief strategist, Bannon was on a mission to open new Breitbart operations in several European countries. According to multiple reports, he wanted these foreign offices opened for the purpose of backing nationalist, anti-immigrant political parties such as the National Front in France.

Another country Bannon had eyed for setting up shop was India, so his right-wing news and propaganda network could lend its support to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, another nationalist, hugely controversial figure whom Bannon has come to admire greatly.

“On November 17 2015, I sat opposite Steve Bannon in [a New York City] office as he asked me if I’d be interested in starting Breitbart India,” Mumbai-based writer Amit Varma wrote in a little-noticed blog post late last year.

“A lady who was one of the funders of [Breitbart], and of certain leaders in the Republican Party, got in touch with [others] to ask if she could meet me. (It’s not fair of me to name her because she’s not really a public figure.),” Varma continued. “She’d been impressed by my speech, and thus this meeting [with her and Bannon].”

Though Varma declined to name the “lady,” two sources, who requested anonymity, with knowledge of the meeting confirmed to The Daily Beast that the woman present in the room with Bannon was in fact Rebekah Mercer, the Republican megadonor with deep ties to Trump and Bannon. Last week, Breitbart confirmed that the Mercer family does in fact co-own Breitbart.

Mercer did not respond to requests for comment on this story. Neither did Bannon.

Varma blogged that he “didn’t know much about Breitbart” or the American alt-right, though he knew right off the bat that launching Breitbart India wasn’t the gig for him. Breitbart was a conservative vehicle, both in the United States and at its offshoots abroad. Varma identifies as a pro-immigration, pro-gay-rights libertarian. Moreover, he says that he advised them that there wasn’t even a point to having a website like Breitbart colonize India.

“It’s incongruent,” he recalled telling Bannon and Mercer. “There is no analog of American conservatism in India. The Indian right is driven by bigotry and nativism, with no deeper guiding philosophy behind it. [Consider the irony of these words.] You will not find any Burkean conservatives here. Don’t come.”

“Well, we think that Modi is India’s Reagan,” Bannon replied, according to Varma.

Varma writes that he “laughed” in Bannon’s face when he said that, and had to tell them that “Modi was no Reagan.”

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Subsequently, “the lady” present attempted to convince Varma that she was “actually” a libertarian, as well, before launching into “diatribes” against same-sex marriage and “immigrants in America, and how the cultural fabric of Europe was being torn apart by their immigrants.”

Following Trump’s election-night upset, Varma wrote that he is “still glad that I didn’t explore their offer further. I could have been somewhat richer, maybe even influential, if I’d taken it up—but I sleep well at night now, and that’s what matters.”

In a brief phone conversation, Varma told The Daily Beast that he did not wish to comment further than what he wrote in his original post, but added that he found Bannon to be warm and “very nice to me.”

Modi is a controversial nationalist, right-wing leader. The U.S., along with England and other Western countries, had imposed a visa ban on him after human-rights organizations implicated Modi in a 2002 slaughter of Muslims in his state. The Indian Supreme Court eventually exonerated Modi years later, but by then many witnesses had been tampered with, had died, or had been killed.

During a conference held inside the Vatican in 2014, Bannon praised Modi, a Hindu nationalist, for being at the center of a transnational “revolt.”

“That center-right revolt is really a global revolt,” Bannon said, according to BuzzFeed. “I think you’re going to see it in Latin America, I think you’re going to see it in Asia, I think you’ve already seen it in India. Modi’s great victory was very much based on these Reaganesque principles, so I think this is a global revolt, and we are very fortunate and proud to be the news site that is reporting that throughout the world.”

The intersection of pro-Modi and pro-Trump sentiments within Trump’s inner political circle didn’t stop there. The Republican Hindu Coalition (RHC), which was very supportive of Trump’s presidential campaign and was favorably covered on Breitbart multiple times, has been in close contact with Bannon, via its leader and GOP donor Shalabh “Shalli” Kumar.

In mid-October of last year shortly before the election, Kumar organized an RHC event in New Jersey featuring and celebrating Donald J. Trump. The event also included Kumar, as well as “Bollywood Stars, and major Hindu spiritual leaders,” according to the invitation.

Kumar, chairman of the Republican Hindu Coalition, told The Daily Beast this week, that Bannon worked with him to get the event planned around the Republican presidential nominee’s busy schedule.

“I have had several interfaces with [Steve Bannon] in person, as well as over the phone and over email,” Kumar said.

Kumar said that he first met Bannon in late August 2016, and that he was a “very, very nice guy”—not the the “rude, angry-type person” he had seen portrayed in the news. During his August visit to Trump Tower to plan the Bollywood-tinged, pro-Trump event, Kumar met with Kellyanne Conway and Bannon.

“Generally, we were talking about the reaching-out to Hindu Americans, and [Bannon] was all for it—I do remember him being interested in talking to the powers at be from India,” Kumar recalled. “At the end of the meeting, Kellyanne had to disappear for a moment into a different room, and I had forgotten to ask her some questions… So Steve went with me from room, to room, to room [in Trump Tower] to find her to get my questions answered.”

Kumar said he chatted with Bannon multiple times regarding the importance of a “nationalist economy,” Indian politics, and taking “tough stands against radical Islamic terrorism.”

“[Steve] had a clear philosophy that you could still be in nationalism, and still be a global power,” he continued.

The Trump megadonor and RHC chair also claims that during the campaign he had set up an active “email group” between Bannon, Conway, Stephen Miller, and himself.

The original purpose of this email thread was, according to Kumar, to coordinate planning of the Trump—Bollywood bash. The thread later, however, afforded Kumar the opportunity to simply chat with Trump’s most senior aides about current events whenever he felt like it—and they listened, he says.

“I do comment on what I see in the news, so I do comment from time to time with the group, and Steve Bannon is always the first one to respond to my comments,” he said. “When Mitt Romney was being considered [by then President-elect Trump] for secretary of state, I was appalled at that, and emailed the group [as such]. And Steve very quickly responded with ‘thank you.’ Within in a couple of hours, Kellyanne was already on TV showing her displeasure at [Team Trump] even thinking about Romney.”

Conway and Miller did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

Kumar says he is still in touch with Bannon, and communicated as recently as last month. When asked about the former Breitbart chief’s plans to try to mount a Breitbart India, Kumar said he had not heard about them, but that it “would be great” if Breitbart did do that.

“Steve Bannon is the guy who straightened out the Trump campaign in August,” the Indian-American businessman said. “He almost seemed like a military commander… One of my favorite guys in history is Gen. Patton, and—you know—he could be like Gen. Patton.”