Three weeks ago, news broke that actor-politician Prakash Raj, who contested the Lok Sabha elections as an independent candidate from Bengaluru Central constituency, had not paid his team for the election work they did. While Prakash Raj’s brother-in-law Lawrence, who was also his election agent, says that they agreed to work as volunteers and not employees, the team members maintain that they were hired as staff and promised a salary. However, after the allegations of non-payment were made, Lawrence says he has contacted all the aggrieved parties and is talking to them; the team members deny this. Seven members of his team, some of whom spoke to Silverscreen on the condition of anonymity, say that he has been unresponsive to calls since the results were declared in May.
Arif Sheik, a Bengaluru-based mechanic, says he was roped in to work for Prakash Raj in February this year for a salary of Rs 35,000. “They took me in as an employee, but when I demanded my salary after the elections, they started referring to me as a volunteer,” he adds.
Around 40 members were part of Prakash Raj’s team, and Arif says they did not sign any contract as they trusted him to pay them. Some members of the team had to distribute pamphlets and organise campaigns in all wards in Bengaluru Central constituency, for which they were paid a daily wage of Rs 500. The rest, including Arif, who worked out of a rented office space in Shanti Nagar, where they claim to have spent over 12 hours every day running errands, said they have still not received the promised salary of Rs 30,000 a month.
They allege that members of the Aam Aadmi Party, who volunteered with Prakash Raj, and were part of the administration team handling payments, kept him in the dark about issues of non-payment and other internal politics. “Everything functioned well until the AAP came in. They didn’t pay salaries, and didn’t allow us to directly approach Prakash Raj either,” says Kalimullah, an activist with Karnataka Communal Harmony Forum who has been associated with Prakash Raj since 2017.
Another team member Abdul Wahib said Prakash Raj was informed about the discrepancy, but did not act on it. “I remember the fights that resulted from this even before the elections. Some groups demanded payment from the administration department and also alleged that members from the BJP and Congress had infiltrated our office. I too have seen BJP members negotiating with the administration. Of course, Prakash Raj was unaware of all this, but I spoke to him over phone and explained that this would tarnish his image. He ignored me,” Wahib elaborates.
Wahib clarifies that he was paid Rs 5,000 for working as a campaigner for 10 days. “But, several others are disappointed that Prakash Raj is unreachable and has not paid them. We also expected him to hold a meeting after the elections, and thought that irrespective of the result, he would thank those who supported and worked for him,” he explains.
Prakash Raj’s office in Shanti Nagar has been closed since the results were declared, and Silverscreen was unable to access payment records as members from the administrative team have not responded to calls. However, Lawrence assures that everyone was paid on time even though they were not promised a salary, and social media posts and news reports accusing him of defaulting on payment are false.
“No one is an employee here and no contract was signed. His team members are all people who wanted to work for free. Despite that, we have paid them. Because he’s a celebrity, they expect more money to pour in,” says Lawrence, adding, “We have been in touch with all of them and are addressing their grievances.”
Prakash Raj’s election staff and campaigners also comprised students, activists and employees of Bengaluru-based NGOs that supported him, and among his election promises was the setting up of offices in every ward in Bengaluru Central to look into children’s Right to Education, access to Government welfare schemes and communal issues.
Fareeda Khan, a tailor who worked with him, says: “I joined him because he promised to work for the welfare of widows and the poor.” She was paid for the 10 days of field work, but not the 20 days of office work. “I was told that if I did well, I would be paid, though they didn’t mention how much. I’m a widow and have three children. I was happy to work for Prakash Raj, and didn’t do it for money. I make a living out of the tailoring unit at home, and so did not ask for my salary,” she recalls.
However, Arif Sheik says he had to stop working as a mechanic from February to May 2019 when he was with Prakash Raj, and is now in a financially dire situation. “Many of us from the team are unwilling to speak about this. I’m speaking up as I see no other option. I used to work long hours and also faced threats from local BJP goons. My business is affected, people no longer call me and my network of customers is gone. It’s going to take me at least two years to rebuild my client base. Why would I have agreed to work for free when my situation is so dire? I was sought out by Prakash Raj, but this has been an ugly experience. I’ve lost hope on all politicians now,” he says.
Meanwhile, in another case pertaining to intellectual property rights of his much-delayed Hindi directorial debut Tadka, starring Nana Patekar, Taapsee Pannu, Shriya Saran and Ali Fazal, the High Court Of Bombay has said Prakash Raj would be charged with aggravated contempt of court if the cheque of Rs 2 crore he paid to production house Essel Vision bounces. The film is an official remake of the original Malayalam hit Salt N’ Pepper. Prakash Raj has already directed the remakes of the film in Kannada (Oggarane), Telugu (Ulavacharu Biryani) and Tamil (Un Samayal Arayil).