On Thursday, Cobrapost published a report on its latest sting, Operation Karaoke, that exposes Bollywood celebrities for accepting money to promote political parties.
In the run up to the 2019 elections, Cobrapost video records around 36 Bollywood personalities striking deals for promoting various political parties’ ideology on their social media platforms. These celebrities were also willing to accept most of their of payments in cash to evade taxes.
Although these celebrities aren’t Bollywood A-listers, they appear in the media and have considerable followings.
In its article, Cobrapost says that its reporters approached celebrities posing as agents in a PR company to promote a political party “discreetly” on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
The terms of this fictitious deal were as follows: the celebrity must create content favouring the party in question, defend the party on issues like rape, and maintain total secrecy about the endeavour
They must also sign a dubious product endorsement contract to account for their fees, which they will receive in cash or as black money. Celebrities charged between Rs 2 and Rs 50 lakh per social media post.
“Some even quoted a few 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”, says the report.
The celebrities who accepted bribes are 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 and Niktin Dheer, Tisca Chopra, Deepshikha Nagpal, Akhilendra Mishra, Rohit Roy, Rahul Bhat, Salim Zaidi, Rakhi Sawant, Aman Verma, Hiten Tejwani, Gauri Pradhan, Evelyn Sharma, Minissha Lamba, Koena Mitra, Poonam Pandey and 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.
Not all celebrities unanimously agreed to the conditions of the deal. For instance, Sunny Leone’s partner and manager, Daniel Weber, said it would be inappropriate for Sunny to discuss a surgical strike.
Others like Abhijeet Bhattacharya suggested video content instead of text-based posts. “It will look natural if I make videos saying these things while stuck in traffic or drinking coffee,” he said.
Only four celebrities rejected the proposal—Vidya Balan, Arshad Warsi, Raza Murad, and Saumya Tandon.
Why does this matter?
Cobrapost says that their operation reveals that Bollywood personalities are willing to illegally deal in black money, despite some of them having praised the government’s demonetisation decision.
Shakti Kapoor is one such celebrity. Minissha Lamba and Aman Verma also wanted to be paid fully in cash.
Other celebrities like Evelyn Sharma distanced themselves from financial discussions by authorising managers or agents like Sameer Matai, to negotiate on their behalf. These agents also pushed for black money transactions.
Cobrapost says, “Sameer was so crafty in this trade that he instructed us money matters, that is, fee to be paid to a celeb and mode of payment, should be discussed only with him, none else.”
The celebrities who participated also introduced the undercover reports to more interested celebrities. Surendra Pal put the team in touch with Puneet Issar and Upasana Singh, proving that such illegal dealings are commonplace in Bollywood. Mika Singh also suggested some of his friends like Rohit and Ronit Roy.
This also shows that Indian celebrities conduct black money transactions so publicly they have working knowledge on which of their peers will be willing to participate in such questionable projects.
Are celebrities responsible for public discourse?
Other than the prevalence of illegal financial dealings, this operation does not reveal wrongdoing.
When asked if sponsored political content is synonymous with election campaigning, Counsel at Cornellia Chambers Kushan Chakraborty said that, to the best of his knowledge, it is not. He added that political parties had an obligation to disclose their funding sources, but not who they fund.
Still, Cobrapost reveals that public figures’ social media content is not necessarily real or true and that influencers are willing to cater to the ideologies of the highest bidder.
Although sponsored social media posts are not illegal, this operation highlights that paid-for political content has serious repercussions, especially if it is partisan and false and during an election year when tensions are high.
“Events such as this show how dangerous this kind of conduct on a part of a celebrity can be particularly at time when social media such as WhatsApp is being used to spread rumours and hatred”, says Cobrapost.
This hatred has transcended violent speech and resulted in mob lynchings and defiant villiante groups.
A report by the Human Rights Watch, an international watchdog organisation, found that between 2015 and 2018, right-wing Hindu extremists killed 36 Muslims in 12 different states in mob-style. Over these three years, vigilante groups also injured 280 people.
Influential figures are further empower such groups by posting partisan content. While Cobrapost does not specify if the fake posts were inflammatory or divisive, the decentralised nature of social media allows for various interpretations of a post that include a call to violence and radicalism.
All things considered, the core of this issue is this: are non-political public figures like celebrities obligated to conduct responsible discourse simply because they have an audience? In other words, should celebrities’ opinions and behaviours be held to a certain standard because they are famous?
This is a difficult question to answer because, as a society, we’re adjusting to the scale of social media and profitability of performing on it.
Regardless, Indians across the country voice their distaste or support for celebrities when it comes to certain social issues– from Kangana Ranaut slamming Bollywood’s nepotism to Virender Sehwag trolling Gurmehar Kaur for her views.
Another takeaway is the lack of a discerning social media audience that is neither able to fact-check nor has the motivation to do so.
It’s worth wondering whether such sting operations would be still be valuable if Indian social media users were more critical of the content they consume.
Rhea Arora is a Staff Writer at Qrius