OPERATION KARAOKE: Cobrapost exposes three dozen Bollywood celebrities willing to post messages, as their personal opinion, on social media on behalf of political parties, for money. These celebrities include famous singers, comedians and actors from the entertainment industry, TV and films.
NEW DELHI — Operation Karaoke by Cobrapost has exposed 36 Bollywood celebrities ready to promote a political party for money by posting favourable messages on their social media accounts to help create a favourable environment in the run-up to 2019 elections.
Cobrapost had its reporters posing as representatives from a public relations company and meeting actors, singers, dancers and TV stars through their managers to allegedly strike a deal ahead of the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.
According to Cobrapost editor-in-chief Aniruddha Bahl, the sting revolves around 36 celebrities agreeing to post messages on their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts to help create a favourable environment for certain political parties.
Among these celebs are actors, singers, stand-up comedians and dancers: Noted playback singers, Abhijeet Bhattacharya, Kailash Kher, Mika Singh and Baba Sehgal; actors Jackie Shroff, Shakti Kapoor, Vivek Oberoi, Sonu Sood, Amisha Patel, Mahima Chaudhry, Shreyas Talpade, Puneet Issar, Surendra Pal, Pankaj Dheer and his son Nikitin Dheer, Tisca Chopra, Deepshikha Nagpal, Akhilendra Mishra, Rohit Roy, Rahul Bhat, Salim Zaidi, Rakhi Sawant, Aman Verma, Hiten Tejwani and spouse Gauri Pradhan, Evelyn Sharma, Minissha Lamba, Koena Mitra, Poonam Pandey, Sunny Leonne; comedians Raju Srivastava, Sunil Pal, Rajpal Yadav, Upasana Singh, Krushna Abhishek and Vijay Ishwarlal Pawar; and choreographer Ganesh Acharya and dancer Sambhavana Seth. This is almost who’s who of the entertainment industry, both film and TV.
While we saw all these celebs succumbing to the lure of money and agreeing to indulge in this unethical and unlawful practice, there were some notable exceptions, though. When we approached Vidya Balan, Arshad Warsi, Raza Murad and Saumya Tandon with our proposition, these celebs chose to go by their conscience and straightaway refused to play ball.
Representing a fictitious PR agency and taking on aliases, Cobrapost reporters approached these celebrities with a simple question: Would you be willing to promote a political party discreetly on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram? Almost all of the above celebs concurred to do it for a fee.
Our interactions with these celebs can be summed up as follows:
- Celebs agreed to promote the party in question to create a favourable environment before 2019 general elections. Some of them even tweeted without having been paid any money to show their eagerness to our reporters.
- Most of them were willing to accept the bulk of their fee in cash, which in other words means black money.
- Celebs would tweak the content on various issues to be provided to them before posting the same on their social media profiles to make it look as their own.
- They would defend the government even on controversial issues such as rapes and fatal accidents such as a bridge collapse here and there.
- They were willing to sign a dummy contract for endorsement of products to disguise the real nature of the proxy political campaigning.
- They agreed to send us their PAN and banking details, and many actually did so.
- They swore to keep the entire exercise a secret, and the agenda hidden.
- Some actors even proposed that they would proxy promote the political party in their press briefings during the promotion of a film or an event.
- Some even proposed to post videos on social media and make them go viral with the help of their followers.
The party in question was, in most of the cases, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Congress Party in some cases. The names of political parties were used, in good faith and public interest, for narrative purpose only, and this is not an insinuation of their actual involvement in the practice. The investigation was made to expose the celebs willing to endorse a political agenda in return for monetary gains.
if you think what such celebrities write on their Twitter, Facebook and Instagram profiles is out of their genuine appreciation of a political party, think twice.
These celebrities did not blink an eye before saying “Aye” to the proposition, asking for a fee which ranged from Rs 2 lakh to Rs 50 lakh per message. Some even quoted a fee of Rs. 20 crore for an eight-month contract, and almost none of them said no to black money when we told them a bulk of their fee would be paid in cash.
To recall, in 2012 Cobrapost had investigated the rampant use of black money in the Indian film industry. The Dirty Picture had famous Bollywood biggies like producers Vashu Bhagnani and Anees Bazmi and director Anubhav Sinha shown ready to accept huge investments of black money in their prospective film projects.
Operation Karaoke again reminds us nothing has changed in the entertainment industry with all these celebs willing to accept a big component of their fee in cash, even some wondering if they could be paid all in cash. Minissha Lamba, for example, wanted her fee to be paid entirely in cash. She was disappointed when she came to know at least 20 per cent of her fee would be paid in white. “Lekin aapne mujhe bola tha ki saara cash hoga (But you had told me payment will be made entirely in cash),” she wondered. Like her, Aman Verma also wanted only cash. “I would love all in cash,” he said.
Bollywood bad guy Shakti Kapoor, who went to town praising demonetization, an avowed aim of which was to curtail black money, had the gumption to blurt, “Number one mein daalo mat (Don’t pay in number one).” Pankaj Dheer, another BJP acolyte, had this to say on cash, “I am very comfortable because in cheque I am burdened till here.”
We met these celebs, in majority of instances, through some agents. These agents spoke to the celebs after getting a brief from our team. It was these agents who facilitated our meeting with celebs after duly apprising them of our agenda.
One such agent was Sameer Matai, for instance, who got the Cobrapost team in touch with Evelyn Sharma and Minissha Lamba. Sameer was so crafty in this trade that he instructed us money matters, that is, the fee to be paid to a celeb and mode of payment, should be discussed only with him, none else. After the team had shot a couple of celebs, he began doubting if we were conducting a sting operation and began insisting to visit our Delhi office which never existed. Although our team tried to mollify him, there was no point pursuing the investigation further with him for obvious reasons. However, before this unsavoury development took place, Sameer had emailed us giving details of the celebrities who would work on our assignment and the fees they would charge. He even gave names of some more celebrities who he could prospect for us.
In some cases, a particular celeb would help our team reach out to others. Surendra Pal, for instance, got us in touch with Puneet Issar and Upasana Singh. Interestingly, some of these celebrities brought their family members on board. Hiten Tejwani, for instance, roped in his spouse Gauri Pradhan. Similarly, actor Pankaj Dheer suggested us to take along both his son Nikitin and his daughter-in-law Kratika. We obliged when Nikitin incidentally entered the room where we were interviewing his father. While Mika Singh proposed to bring on board some of his friends, Rohit Roy messaged to inform us that his brother, Ronit Roy, is on board.
While in some cases, managers took the onus of dealing with money matters on behalf of their bosses, in most of the cases, the celebrities were present when negotiations for money went on. A majority of these celebs negotiated for a fee much higher than initially proposed or they could command in the market.
Although almost out of job in Bollywood, Mahima Chaudhary, for instance, demanded Rs. 1 crore for a single message. “BJP toh kuchh bhi de sakti hai. They can give one crore a month (The BJP can give you anything. They can give 1 crore a month),” she said.
Sonu Sood, on the other hand, quoted a price of Rs. 20 crore to undertake the assignment. Not satisfied with the fee we would put on his table, Sood demanded Rs. 2.50 crore a month, saying, “Main aapko bataoon directly since agar main aapse aise baat kar raha hoon dekho mera aisa maanana hai ki hum na main seriously karoonga paanch bhi ho sakte hain saat bhi ho sakte hain my messages will be very very strong and nice main usmein koshish karenge ki paanch nahi bole aaj chaar hee karein hain ek kisi aur ne kiya maine repeat karke uska jawaab de diya, for example, theek hai. Toh wo sab karenge main ek aadh ka but I feel ki jo apan 1.5 crore soch rahe hain it should be at least 2.5 (Let me tell you directly … Since if I am talking to you … you see I think I shall work seriously. There can be five or seven [posts/tweets]. My messages will be very, very strong and nice. If I say I will do only four not five on a given day … I will repeat something written by somebody else, for example, and I will add my answer to it. Is that okay? I will do all that … but I feel that the price 1.5 crore you have quoted, it should be at least 2.5).”
Many of these celebs suggested they would improvise on the content they would be provided for this proxy promotion, while some suggested their own bit to do it in a more convincing and effective way. Bhattacharya, for instance, suggested he would use his mobile phone to make videos for the promotion of the BJP in situations which look natural. He said, “Hoon, natural lage na kahin khade traffic mein gaadi ke andar baith ke bol diya chaay pee rahe hain coffee shop pe bol diya toh wo … haan natural (It should look natural. Suppose, I am at a traffic signal and I say something while sitting in my car or sipping tea at a coffee shop … yes [that would look] natural).”
Here too, the singer did not lose a chance to spew venom against Muslims. Referring to a controversial statement made by one of the BJP legislators from Hyderabad, Bhattacharya observed, “Ye isne bahut accha kiya tha Raja Singh bhi mere paas aate hain Hyderabad se BJP ke MLA Raja Singh bilkul wahan ke Yogi hain. Usne bola tha na Rohingya ko itna kyon de rahe ho seedha goli maar do. Baahar jaate hain toh theek hai warna goli maar do. Toh wo attitude hona chahiye … nahi main boloonga Rohingya ko goli maar do jo support karte hain unko goli maar do pehle unko maaro baad mein unko maaro (This fellow did the right thing.
(Raja Singh, the BJP MLA from Hyderabad, visits me. He is Yogi [Adityanath] of Hyderabad. He had said why give Rohingyas any shelter, why not shoot them. This should be the attitude … No, I will say shoot the Rohingyas and shoot those who support them. First kill their supporters and then them).” If you may recall, Bhattacharya in September 2016 created a flutter when he lashed out at Karan Johar and Mahesh Bhat for “breeding” and “feeding” Pakistani artistes. Bhattacharya was arrested by the Mumbai Police for abusing a woman journalist on Twitter.
In April last year, the singer again kicked a storm when he called a decorated senior army officer Pak supporter after the officer criticized Major Gogoi using an alleged stone pelter as human shield tying him to the bonnet of his jeep. Two months later his account was suspended after he abused student leader Shehla Rashid and other women Twitter users.
Kailash Kher, who has given his voice to the title song of Swach Bharat Abhiyan, to our surprise cosied up to our team and accepted our proposition, even showing his willingness to accept black money. Assuring us, he says, “Wo saara wo hee batayenge … wo saara ho jayega aap unse baat kijiye (They [his agency] will tell you about it … that will be done. You talk to them).” Choreographer Ganesh Acharya offered, “Dekho kya hai na mera jo hai na … baat karni hai na dance ke liye tweet maroonga na toh lakhon tak pahunchati hai, karodon tak pahunchati hai … toh aap mujhe content bhejenge usko thoda sa dance form mein aisa normal baat karoonga toh do teen lakh tak pahunchata hai (You see what happens … if I have to talk about dance and tweet about it, it reaches millions of people … so if I say something in a dance form on the content you will send me, it will reach two-three lakh people).”
Bollywood veteran Jackie Shroff said he is not a communal man and cautioned to play the game keeping in view his age, yet he still went along the tide. When we asked him to quote his fee, he gave us this quotable quote, “Kya Piyush aisi baat karte ho … aur tizori ka darwaza kolo yaar … main mere dil ka darwaaza khol rahaa hoon too tizori ka darwaza kholne ke liye pooch raha hai mere ko (Come on Piyush don’t talk like this … buddy, open the door of your safe … I am opening the door of my heart and you are asking me to open the door of your safe).”
Sunny Leonne, the new sex siren on the Bollywood landscape would support the BJP wholeheartedly provided her husband is given citizen status. This is what she says, “Modi Sir ne Daniel ko overseas citizen banaya toh hum zaroor support karenge (We will definitely support provided Modi Sir [the BJP government] grant Daniel overseas citizen status).”
Singer Mika Singh would help us this way, “Humne kuch bola tha Kanwaljeet ko bhi ki iske alawa kisi aur ko bhi chahiye toh main do-chaar logon se baat kar loonga … lekin pehle ek baar apna ho jaaye (I had told Kanwaljeet that if you need help I can rope in some more people … but first let me start it).”
Actor Vivek Oberoi sought to expedite the formalities of the project as he says, “Toh main ye bol raha tha ki jaane se pehle aap ye formalities kar do taaki fir hum 1st September se karein kyonki iske baad hum jayenge Kerala, Kerala se hum jayenge Azerbaijan. Tweet toh hum kahin se bhi karenge but agar ye formalities close ho jaati hain toh humko bhi ek understanding bhi ho jaati hai. Ek aap baat kar lena saari aur baaki humko ek wo bhi de dein ki ye mudde hain … toh ye mudde ye facts ye figures toh ek docket bana ke de dein toh fir main, aap aur social media team humari milke iska phase out plan karenge ki bhai aaj ye topic kar rahe hain, ye topic kar rahe hain, ye topic kar rahe hain aur har hufte ka topic mahine ka mail kar denge chunk bhai ye mahine mein week 1, 2, 3, 4 mein in muddon ko uthayenge aur hum ye baat karenge (So, I would like to tell you to close the formalities before I leave so that I can start it from 1st September, because after that I would go to Kerala and from there to Azerbaijan. I can tweet from anywhere, but if you close these formalities, I would arrive at an understanding. [Turning to his manager]You can discuss it all with them and also give me a list of issues with facts and figures in the form of a docket. After that, I, you and my social media team will make a phase out [sic] plan; for instance, today we will cover this topic, and the topic to be covered every week, month you will mail me in a chunk, telling me we will be covering these issues in 1, 2, 3 and 4 weeks, we will talk about this issue).”
Bollywood diva Amisha Patel would like to have the transfer of advance sum to take place before she would start making general tweets. Amisha tells us, “Samajho aap 28 ko aa rahe ho transaction ho jaata hai 28 kee sham ko main kar doongi taaki first week of September mein jab aapka pehla aa jaye toh wo paanch din ka gap rahega toh wo (Suppose, you say you are coming on 28. If transaction takes place on 28, I will post the tweet that very evening. So, when I receive the first advance in the first week of September, there will be a gap of five days).”
Rakhi Sawant made this revelation, “Last time bhi aise hua tha mujhe hire kiya tha Rajnath ji ne pata hai (Last time around the same had happened. I was hired by Rajnath ji, you know).” Sawant even sent us a video to showcase how she would promote the BJP. Actor Surendra Pal is so desperate he not only begs us to honour our commitment but also seeks to extend it, as he says, “Bas aap ye dhyan rakhiyega ki aath mahine continue rakhein ye nahi ki beech mein chhod dein aap mujhe … aur agar ho sake toh fir aath mahine ke baad bhi fir continue rakhein usko aage bhi zaroorat padegi(Please see to it that you honour the contract for eight months. Don’t leave me half way through it … and if it is possible continue it after eight months. You may need it further).”
Actor-director Puneet Issar would not hesitate even making controversial tweets. Issar says, “Main aapse discuss kar loonga … sir ye main inki maar sakta hoon destroy kar sakta hoon kya hai wo wo we will talk the money then (I will disuses the idea then … I will tell I can screw them up, I can destroy them. So, we will talk the money [part] then).”
Author-actor Tisca Chopra also makes a revelation on how stars like her proxy-promote various products on social media, “Humare toh rates hain fixed jo hum charge karte hain because hum karte hee rahte hain ye alag-alag brands aur alag-alag cheejon ke liye toh ab aap bataiye aapke mind mein kya hai (Our rates are fixed whatever we charge, because we keep promoting different brands and different events. So tell me what is in your mind),” she says when we ask what her expectation was.
Stand-up comedian Sunil Pal agreed to lampoon Rahul Gandhi and gave us a live demo of how he would go about doing it. He said, “Ye kya tha Rahul Gandhi bolta hai ki humari party ne 60 saal se kya kiya kya nahi, meri daadi ne iss desh ko aage barhaya, papa ne dupat kiya, mujhe bana do main chaupat kar doonga wo ye kahna chahte hain ki chaar guna bada hoga … aur Soniaji ke baare mein mat poocho wo ek sanaki kee maa hain wo ek sanaki kee maa hai … main video banake YouTube pe daloonga aapko bhejoonga (What is this? Rahul Gandhi says our party did this and that in the past 60 years. ‘He says his grandmother worked to develop the country, his father worked to double it up and he says let him be the prime minister he would bring everything down … and Sonia is the mother of a cynic ’… I would make such videos, post on YouTube and share the same with you).”
Enthused by prospects of making a good fortune out of this proposition, Pal did so in one of his public programmes a few weeks after the interview, much to the chagrin of the organizers, leading to much rancour among the audience as he was asked to leave the venue by the organizers. In his eagerness to undertake the assignment, Pal even made some tweets, with one taking a dig at Rahul Gandhi.
Although a freak one, events such as this show how dangerous this kind of conduct on part of a celebrity can be particularly at time when social media such as WhatsApp is being used to spread rumours and hatred which has led to lynching of many innocent people by murderous mobs in recent past.
Of late, social media has become a potent tool to spread rumours and plain untruths, which carry away not only commoners but also celebs. We were shocked to listen to what Upasana Singh told us, a piece of disinformation that is polluting minds across the country and across classes.
As if coming straight from the WhatsApp University, she said this on Rahul Gandhi, “Toh ye bacche Musalman hain toh wo Muslim hai toh wo poora itna maine kiya hai lekin mere ko real lagti hain ye cheejein bahut (So, her children are Muslim, so he is a Muslim. I try to control myself, but such things really hurt me).”
Vijay Pawar alias VIP went a step ahead while agreeing to lampoon Rahul Gandhi. Mimicking his mother Sonia Gandhi, the comedian gave us a live demo: “Uski maa bolegi Modiji baar-baar aap kyon jeet rahe ho. Mere khyal se Rahul bhi Modiji ko hee vote de raha hai wo bhi Modiji ko hee vote de raha hai Pappu (His mother [Sonia Gandhi] asking Modiji why he has been winning all the time. I think son Rahul is sure voting Modiji. That Pappu).”
One fact that makes the use of social media for mercenary purposes more dangerous is the “ripple effect”, to quote Vivek Oberoi, it can produce with huge following these celebrities command on social media. Some of the celebs we interviewed during the course of this investigation enjoy a following which goes into millions. Oberoi alone has about 3 million followers, for instance, Bhattacharya has more than 2 million followers, Amisha Patel has about 6 million, Mika Singh has 10 million and Sunny Leonne has more than 26 million followers, just to give an idea. Outshining all these celebs, however, Sunny Leonne, the new sex symbol on the block, alone has more than 20 million followers. Obviously, these celebs can reach millions of people with a click of their mouse or press of a key on their smart phone to create havoc by proxy-shaping an opinion in favour or against a political party, thus weakening our democracy.
The celebs who refused to play ball had a choice to swim along the tide. But they chose to go by their conscience, rather than going by the vice called avarice. When we tried to brief Saumya Tandon over phone, the Bhabi Ji Ghar Par Hain star outright rejected the idea saying, “Main kisi bhi party se koi bhi affiliation personal ke liye nahi karna chahti kyonki sir mere sidhanton ke khilaaf hai. Bahut saare actors aapko paise ke liye bahut kuch karte nazar aayenge lekin agar main kuch decide karoongi toh wo tabhi karoongi jab main genuinely believe karti hoon usmein (I don’t want to have an affiliation with any political party for personal gain, because it is against my principles. You will find actors who do anything you want for money. But if I decide [to work for any party] I will do so only when I genuinely believe in it).”
No amount of persuasion would work on veteran actor Raza Murad, either. When he tells us he does not have a Twitter account, we promptly advise him to open one. Rejecting the idea of promoting a political party on social media, Murad says, “Nahi mujhe nahi kholna yahan pe mujhe nahi kholna Twitter pe (No, I don’t want to open an account on Twitter).”
We spoke to the manager of Arshad Warsi after we had apprised her of our proposition a day before. We expected her boss to fall in line. But it did not happen, as the manager informed us, “Sandeep ji unfortunately maine actually kal sir se baat kee. Political campaign toh hum nahi kar payenge sir ko kuch aur laga pehle toh (Sandeep ji, I spoke to Sir [Arshad Warsi] yesterday. Unfortunately, we will not be able to do political campaign. Sir had thought it was something else).”
No, it is not direct political campaigning, we tried to argue to make our case. But she would not listen. “Haan ji main maanti hoon par ye sab chakkar mein hum padte hee nahi hain. Humein bahut saare elections mein bhi bulaya gayaa hum kabhi karte nahi hain kyonki sir political campaign se door rahte hain (Yes, I understand that. But we never get into this. We were invited to many elections [for campaigning], but we never do that because Sir always keeps himself off from political campaigning).”
Imagine you are an ardent fan of a famous Bollywood actor and zealously follow him on social media. What he says on an issue of topical importance you may often tend to take as gospel truth because you hold him to be as righteous as any of your gods are. Hadn’t this been the case, many cine stars would have never found themselves enshrined in temples built for them by millions of their star-struck fans. But do you realize your favourite star may have been paid to sway your opinion in favour of a particular political party or a product through those catchy messages on social media? Or, simply the demigod may have been hired to further a political agenda?
But more than that the larger issue is the sway these celebrities hold on their gullible followers. It may be argued as well that they are doing it in personal capacity so where is the harm. Their promoting a particular party for money, however, restricts citizens’ choice to freely exercise their right to vote by taking an informed decision and makes them bias in favour of a particular party their heroes may be promoting at a given point of time.
It was high time, the Election Commission of India framed guidelines to regulate such proxy campaigning by celebrities on social media by making such activity an offence on the lines of paid news and put in place a mechanism to monitor it. Or they are asked to affix a disclaimer saying it is an advertisement to make their followers aware of their motive. It is essential to save democracy from such proxy campaigning by celebrities whose greed knows no bounds.
As these conversations reveal, some of the celebrities are hired by various political parties for promotion on social media. Another fact that emerges from these revelations is most of the celebrities promote different brands and products on social media for money. So, if you think what such celebrities write on their Twitter, Facebook and Instagram profiles is out of their genuine appreciation of a political party, think twice.