Investigative website Cobrapost on Tuesday alleged that several celebrities from Bollywood, the music and television industries consented to promote political narratives of particular parties on social media for a fee. In most cases, the party was the Bharatiya Janata Party, in some others, it was the Aam Aadmi Party or the Congress, the media house added.
Cobrapost said it conducted an investigation, dubbed “Operation Karaoke” posing as employees of a fictitious public relations agency and using aliases. The sting operation revealed that 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 were willing to post favourable messages on social media for political parties.
Other actors who were on this list included 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 Leone, comedians Raju Srivastava, Sunil Pal, Rajpal Yadav, Upasana Singh, Krushna Abhishek and Vijay Ishwarlal Pawar, and choreographer Ganesh Acharya and dancer Sambhavana Seth.
Some of the stars also agreed to post such messages without payment, the media house added.
“They were willing to sign a dummy contract for endorsement of products to disguise the real nature of the proxy political campaigning,” Cobrapost said. “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.”
However, some celebrities, including Vidya Balan, Arshad Warsi, Raza Murad and Saumya Tandon, refused to promote any political party, Cobrapost said.
Cobrapost reporters approached actor Jackie Shroff posing as employees of the Future PR company, one of whose clients is the Bharatiya Janata Party. The reporter told Shroff that the BJP wants to undertake digital campaigning on social media for the 2019 elections, but cannot do this openly. In response, Shroff said the agenda does not matter as long as celebrities like him say good things about the party on social media and get paid for it.
“How long will this game last?” Shroff asked. “This work begins from September 1, 2018, and will go on for nine months,” a reporter said.
Shroff agreed to keep the task secret, claiming that he is close friends with a Union minister. “I understand the whole thing,” he said. “But I am a non-political person who does not wade into controversies.”
The actor refused to quote a fee for his services. But he said: “If I open the doors of my heart to you, will you open your purse?”
The undercover reporters agreed to pay Shroff liberally. Cobrapost said its reporters then met Shroff’s aide Shetty, who told them that at least 20% of the amount paid will have to be shown in the books of accounts. “You can pay 80% in cash,” he agreed.
Singer Kailash Kher agreed to promote the BJP on his social media accounts when he was approached by undercover Cobrapost reporters posing as PR agents. “You can tweet about the good work of the Modi government,” a reporter said. “Just three to four times a month.”
“What will be the commission paid for this?” Kher asked. The reporters told him that it depends on the number of people who follow the celebrity on social media. “You have to tell us what you want to charge for one tweet,” the reporters asked. Kher asked them to approach his agency for the negotiations.
Asked whether he has any problem with taking up the task, Kher said: “No, not at all”. “You will give me the content, but I will filter it,” he added. The singer said he understood that it should not be obvious that he was promoting the BJP on social media.
“We will provide you the content, but you will make the posts,” the reporters told singer Baba Sehgal on a phone call. “In a way, we are hiring you, but your public image will be that you support the BJP’s ideology.”
“Yes, we do this, we have done this before,” he responded. “But how many tweets?” “You will have to make 4-5 tweets per month,” one of the reporters said when Sehgal said he cannot meet the PR agency’s representatives as he is travelling.
Sehgal told the reporters that he charges Rs 2 lakh per tweet. Asked what percentage of the payment he would take in cash, the singer responded: “I can take 50%, 30-40%? What percentage do you want in white [money]?” Sehgal expressed surprise when told that the agency cannot deposit more than 20% of the amount in his account. However, he asked them to go ahead with the deal.
Cobrapost approached actor Poonam Pandey and briefed her about promoting the government’s schemes, such as Swacch Bharat, demonetisation, and Beti Bachao Beti Padhao. “We will provide you the content, you merely have to promote it on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram in your style,” a reporter said.
“We will use your social media accounts in favour of the BJP,” the reporter said. “But the public will think that Poonam Pandey is saying this.”
Pandey agreed to perform this task. “Whenever we make a post, it never looks like she is promoting something obvious,” Pandey said. “If I write something after our mutual conversation, it will look real.” The reporters agreed to discuss the posts before they are posted.
The reporters gave Pandey detailed information about their payment structure, offering 20% in “white money” and 80% in cash. “All payments will be made to you in advance,” they added. Cobrapost said that Pandey agreed to make 15 social media posts a month across platforms, for a fee of Rs 45 lakh.