New Delhi: Dozens of Mumbai stars, just short of the Bollywood A-list, have been caught on camera offering to post political propaganda in exchange for payments in cash, ahead of the 2019 national elections.
The subjects of the undercover string are star actors – Sunny Leone, Jackie Shroff, Sonu Sood, Amisha Patel, Rakhi Sawant, Mahima Chaudhry, Shreyas Talpade, Puneet Issar, Tisca Chopra, Rohit Roy, Minissha Lamba, Vivek Oberoi – the playback singers Abhijeet Bhattacharya, Kailash Kher, Mika Singh and Baba Sehgal; the comedians Raju Srivastava, Sunil Pal and Rajpal Yadav; and the choreographer Ganesh Acharya.
Last year, CobraPost conducted a similar exposé of large media houses, which agreed to propagate pro-Hindutva programming for a price. Many of the subjects of the new sting, titled ‘Operation Karaoke’, are media powerhouses in their own right. Their online followings run into millions – Sunny Leone alone has a Twitter following just short of four million.
The fees they demanded for political promotions, Cobrapost said, ranged Rs 2 lakh to Rs 50 lakh per message. “Some even quoted a fee of Rs 20 crore for an eight-month contract,” said Cobrapost chief Aniruddh Bahal.
Many artists asked to be paid in cash. Bahal said the new sting, coming six years after the portal investigated black money in Bollywood, proved nothing has changed in the entertainment industry.
Four notable exceptions – actors Vidya Balan, Arshad Warsi, Raza Murad and Saumya Tandon – refused to take the bait or post content to mislead fans about their genuine beliefs.
New side gig for the B-list
Cobrapost said its reporters approached 36 celebrities posing as employees of a public relations firm, representing three major parties – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party. In most cases, they approached the star artists through their official agents or managers.
The reporters asked if the celebrities would 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,” said Bahal. “Some of them even tweeted, without having been paid, to show their eagerness to our reporters.”
They also offered to personally tweak the content to make it look more like their own genuine opinion.
The celebrities offered to “defend the government even on controversial issues,” Cobrapost said, and to “sign a dummy contract for endorsement of products to disguise the real nature of the proxy political campaigning”.
The portal said not only did these celebrities offered to keep the entire exercise a secret, they also offered “promote the political party in their press briefings during the promotion of a film or an event”.
Many stars wanted only cash
Some stars, like actor and model Minissha Lamba, TV personality Aman Verma and actor Shakti Kapoor, allegedly asked to be paid the entire amount in cash – a way of avoiding any tax liability on their fee.
Lamba was allegedly disappointed when she learned that at least 20% of her fee would be in white. “Lekin aapne mujhe bola tha ki saara cash hoga (But you had told me payment will be made entirely in cash),” she said.
Verma was caught on camera saying “I would love all-in-cash.”
Shakti Kapoor, who hailed demonetisation as a historic move, also asked to be paid in black, saying: “Number one mein daalo mat (Don’t pay in number one).”
Actor Mahima Chaudhary asked to be paid Rs one crore, saying: “BJP toh kuchh bhi de sakti hai (The BJP can afford anything), they can give one crore a month.”
Likewise, actor Sonu Sood asked for Rs 20 crore for his services. He insisted that his “messages will be very, very strong and nice.”
Rehearsing communal lines
Cobrapost said many artists also revealed their true attitudes on communal issues.
Bhattacharya allegedly used the opportunity to abuse Muslims, and endorsed the statement of a BJP MLA from Hyderabad, Raja Singh, in September 2016:
“Usne bola tha na, Rohingya ko itna kyon de rahe ho seedha 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 (He said why give the Rohingya any shelter, why not just shoot them. This should be the attitude … No, I say shoot the Rohingya, and shoot those who support them. First kill their supporters and then them.)”
Other artists were willing to mislead their fans by promoting the paid content in a surreptitious manner.
Choreographer Ganesh Acharya offered to discuss dancing in all his messages while reaching out to millions of his followers. “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 (You see what happens … if I have to talk about dance and tweet about it, it reaches millions of people),” he said.
Actor Vivek Oberoi also referred to the `ripple effect’ his message would have due to the large following on social media.
Agreeing to the Cobrapost reporters’ proposition, he boasted, “Saare platform milaakar apne kareeb 25-30 lakh direct followers hain aur unka jo retweet aur ripple effect aata hai wo kareeban do-dhai karod ke kareeban aata hai. Ten times aata hai … toh hum kar sakte hain … iski frequency kya hogi? (I have 25-30 lakh direct followers in all platforms and their retweets make a ripple effect that goes to about 2–2.50 crore. About 10 times … so I can do that … with is its frequency?)”
The portal said Oberoi has about three million followers across platforms. Bhattacharya has over two million, Amisha Patel about six million, Mika Singh ten million – and Sunny Leonne more than 26 million followers.
Taking the higher road
Cobrapost made time to acknowledge the celebrities who refused to play ball.
“When we tried to brief Saumya Tandon, the Bhabi Ji Ghar Par Hain star, over the phone, she outright rejected the idea,” said Bahal. Tandon said affiliating with a political party for personal gain was against her principles.
Likewise, no amount of persuasion worked on veteran actor Raza Murad, who brushed off the reporters, saying he did not have a Twitter account and rejecting the idea of surreptitiously boosting a political party.
Arshad Warsi, through his manager, responded clearly that he would not engage in a political campaign.
The unscrupulous promotion of political parties by celebrities, Bahal said, misleads the public and affect the fair exercise of their electoral franchise. He urged the Election Commission to move to regulate proxy campaigning by celebrities on social media, by making such transactions an offense, on the lines of paid news.