Cobrapost is back. After last month’s sting on DHFL promoters, this time it’s an exposé called “Operation Karaoke”—a 60-minute documentary film that allegedly shows 36 Bollywood celebrities willing to accept large sums of cash in exchange for posting favourable messages on behalf of various political parties—and make it seem like this is their personal opinion.
“Operation Karaoke” was shown to the media at Delhi Press Club on February 19, 2019, at 3.30 pm. The 36 celebrities “stung” by Cobrapost are: playback singers Abhijeet Bhattacharya, Kailash Kher, Mika Singh and Baba Sehgal; actors Jackie Shroff, Shakti Kapoor, Vivek Oberoi, Sonu Sood, Ameesha 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 his wife 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.
All 36 celebrities have a reach of lakhs of followers on their Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts.
Four celebrities were the exception to the rule: when approached by Cobrapost’s undercover reporters, they refused to take part in this exercise. They are Arshad Warsi, Vidya Balan, Raza Murad and Saumya Tandon.
Cobrapost posed as a PR agency and approached the celebrities through their respective agents, sharing a brief of what they expected. The celebrities were expected to post messages from their Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts and pose them as their personal opinions. Cobrapost claims the celebrities were willing to accept large sums of money—the majority of which would be in cash—in exchange.
Cobrapost’s proxy PR agency made it clear this exercise is not official campaigning for political parties but is a backdoor agenda-driven pre-election tactic. Cobrapost claims that the 36 celebrities all agreed and some even tweeted without having been paid yet. Others said they’d indulged in such practices before and knew the drill. They were also willing to accept black money as payment, i.e. payment in cash.
The spectrum of the exercise would range from “tweaking” the content given to them by the proxy PR agency before posting it on social media, to defending the party on controversial issues like rape, bridge collapses, etc. Some celebrities were also allegedly willing (and were captured on video, Cobrapost says) to sign dummy contacts for the endorsement of products so as to disguise the proxy political campaigning. Cobrapost says the celebrities agreed to keep it a secret, and claims they also agreed to promote the concerned party during their (the celeb’s) film promotions.
According to Cobrapost: “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.”
The money offered allegedly ranges anywhere from between ₹2-50 lakh per message. Some actors, like Sonu Sood, allegedly demanded ₹20 crore for an eight-month contract and promised to deliver spectacularly on what was required. Others, like Minissha Lamba, agreed to accept payment in cash. During the course of the investigation, while talking to the undercover reporters, Lamba was told 80-90 per cent of the payment would be in cash while 10-20 per cent would be “white” so the “PR agency” could show it for GST, etc. Lamba purportedly said: “Lekin aapne mujhe bola tha ki saara cash hoga (But you had told me payment will be made entirely in cash).” Well-known television actor Aman Verma can also be seen saying on camera: “I would love all in cash.”
According to what plays out in “Operation Karaoke”, actors purportedly went on to refer other actors—and in some cases, even family members—whom they thought would be suitable for the gig. For example, actor Surendra Pal—best known for his role as Dronacharya in Mahabharat—put Cobrapost’s undercover reporters in touch with Puneet Issar and Upasana Singh. Actor Hiten Tejwani roped in his wife Gauri Pradhan. Actor Pankaj Dheer suggested that his son Nikitin and daughter-in-law Kratika be included in the practice. Actor Rohit Roy allegedly agreed to bring his brother Ronit on board as well.
In most of the cases, the celebrities in question were present in the room at the time of negotiations. Some were routed and fixed through the celebrities’ managers.
Famous playback singer Abhijeet Bhattacharya can be seen on camera railing against Muslims and suggesting ideas on how to make the entire exercise seem more natural. “Abhi jaise ye teen talaq wala hai na teen talaq wala toh usko positive karna hai ki Muslim mard toh mard hee hote hain unka kaam hee hai Muslim mard kee tareh in auraton ko … auraton ko izzat dijiye wo aapki maa hai wo aapki bahen hai wo aapki beti hai theek hai wo aapki saas hai toh Modiji ne auraton par zyada dhyan diya hai (Right now there is this issue of triple talaq. I will write positive things about it saying that Muslim men are typical men who … give these women respect. They are after all your mother, your sister, your daughter or even your mother-in-law. Modiji is paying attention to their good).”
Cobrapost’s video shows Abhijeet suggesting that the issue of talaq be linked to the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao campaign. “Toh Beti Bachao Beti Padhao maybe teen talaq mein se hee aata hai beti kisi na kisi kee toh beti hai toh iss tareh jahan par jo garam mudda hai na usko open kijiye log chunenge baaki toh wo fir aisa lagega ki chal raha hai (Maybe Beti Bachao Beti Parhao arises out of this triple talaq. A woman is a daughter of someone. Take up such a hot issue to open debate. People would jump at it. Otherwise, it will look something like routine).”
The video also shows Abhijeet refusing to criticise West Bengal and the Trinamool Congress. “Usmein naam kyon loon (Why should I name them),” he is seen asking. He continues: “Nahi nahi, wo nahi kar sakta sirf Bengal aur TMC chhod ke sab karoonga … humara rozi-roti maximum wahan se hai (No, no. I can’t do that. I will do everything except Bengal and TMC … I earn my bread and butter maximum from there only).”
Kailash Kher, who has given his voice to the title song of Swach Bharat Abhiyan is shown in the video saying: “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).”
Sunil Pal gives the undercover reporters a live demo of how he would mock Rahul Gandhi on his comedy shows. Vivek Oberoi is seen in his vanity van, purportedly discussing how to create a “ripple effect” by posting messages on social media.
Cobrapost shows veteran actor Jackie Shroff saying at the outset that he isn’t a communal man. When Cobrapost asks him to quote his fee, he says: “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 allegedly says in “Operation Karaoke” that she would support the BJP if her husband Daniel is given citizen status: “Modi Sir ne Daniel ko overseas citizen banaya toh hum zaroor support karenge (We will definitely support provided Modi Sir grants Daniel overseas citizen status).”
Cobrapost also claims actor Ameesha Patel allegedly wants payment in advance before she starts tweeting. In the video, she says: “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 the 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).”
Bollywood’s “bad man” Shakti Kapoor—who left no stone unturned when it came to praising demonetisation—is also featured by Cobrapost on ther video: “Number one mein daalo mat (Don’t pay in number one).”
Cobrapost’s undercover reporters met Rakhi Sawant at an Oshiwara-based restaurant in Mumbai. During the course of the conversation, Sawant reveals: “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).” She also purportedly shows that she’s aware of the illegal nature of such contracts: “Haan wo bolna allowed nahi hota main aap logon ko bataa rahi hoon waise kyonki ye sab illegal hai toh hum matlab bol hee nahi sakte artist bol hee nahi sakte (Yes. Although it is not allowed to tell about it, I am still telling you because this all is illegal as artists cannot talk like this).”
So how are these celebrities agreeing to take 80-90 per cent of their payment in cash? It does raise questions as to just what backchannel exists to convert this money.
Newslaundry reached out to the concerned celebrities with questions regarding their role in the sting operation and to verify the authenticity of Cobrapost‘s claims. This article will be updated once we receive their responses.