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India Today English magazine cover: The King of Con Sukash Chandrashekhar and Jacqueline Fernandez – Cover Story News

Nothing about his appearance invites you to cast a second glance at Sukash Chandrashekhar. Ordinary of build, average in height—5 feet, 9 inches­—the 33-year-old looks a regular guy. When in school in Bengaluru, his friends teased him as Karia—the Kannada word for black—for his dark complexion. There is nothing flashy about his clothes either; he would mostly be found in denims with a tee. He has four fingers missing on his left hand. Nobody knows how he lost them—in an accident or if someone chopped them off. But you don’t get to see the hand—he always keeps it hidden in his trouser pocket.

What you cannot miss, though, is his right hand, sporting some of the world’s most expensive watches. Or the cars he drives—a fleet of top-end marques, among them Rolls Royce, Maserati, Lamborghini, Ferrari and Porsche. At last count, he had 85 watches worth Rs 18 crore and 54 cars worth more than Rs 35 crore in his possession. However, what makes this seemingly ordinary man extraordinary is the fact that he came to acquire these prized possessions allegedly by pulling some of the most elaborate cons in Indian history.

Going by unofficial accounts, he has reportedly defrauded nearly a thousand people of at least Rs 500 crore in the past 15 years. This calculation is derived from the more than 30 cases lodged against him in police stations in six states—Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Maharashtra and Delhi. His biggest heist came between June 2020 and May 2021, when sitting in Delhi’s Rohini jail, he conned the wife of a jailed industrialist, creaming off more than Rs 200 crore from her. His modus operandi was a tried-and-tested one—posing as a senior government official over the phone, he would ask for money in return for a favour. To the jailed industrialist’s wife, he pretended to be the Union law secretary, and took advantage of the pandemic to tell her that her husband was being considered for a place in a committee to fight Covid-19 and consequently for bail if she could contribute to party funds.

Some call him a whizkid with the phone, others a polyglot and a smooth talker. He is also a great impersonator, affecting the voice of those that he wishes to pose as

While investigating this case, law agencies stumbled on the fraudster’s other penchant—lavishing gifts on film actresses. According to a chargesheet prepared by the Enforcement Directorate (ED), which is also probing him under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA), 2002, he spent over Rs 7 crore between February 2021 and August 2021 on gifts for actress Jacqueline Fernandez and her family. The agency believes the two had a romantic relationship, based on some intimate photographs. Jacqueline has denied the claim, but not Sukash. In a letter released to the media in December 2021, he disclosed, “I and Jacqueline were in a relationship, seeing each other, and the relationship was not based on any kind of monetary benefits like the way it’s projectedthe relationship has lots of love and respect for each other without any expectations.” Around the same time, he allegedly tried to woo four other actresses—Nora Fatehi, Bhumi Pednekar, Sara Ali Khan and Janhvi Kapoor—but the ladies did not fall for his inducements (see below: His Other Hits, and Misses).

How did he pull it off? “He was a whizkid,” says Karnataka IPS officer D. Devaraja, who headed the team investigating some of his early cases in 2011, speaking in almost admiring tones. “All he needed was a phone.” The officials of the ED and the Delhi Police, who are dealing with him now, list two more skill sets that have helped him hoodwink politicians, businessmen and actors alike with ease—his smooth talking and command over several languages, be it English, Hindi, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu or Malayalam. He is said to be extremely persuasive and charming, as well as a great impersonator, adept at changing his voice and mannerisms to match the personality he chooses to pose as. He has not spared even the officers grilling him. “He sings like a bird during interrogation,” says an ED officer. “He knows the loopholes of the legal system and tries to play mind games.”

Who really is Sukash Chandrashekhar then? A compulsive conman for whom any con, big or small, was a thrill? A shrewd manipulator who knew exactly what he was doing? A man with political connections, or just a crook feigning influence, political or otherwise? An incurable romantic trying to buy love with expensive gifts, or a plain hustler aspiring for trophy girlfriends? The clues to Sukash Chandrashekhar’s present could well lie in his past.

The beginning

Sukash was born to Vijayan Chandrashekaran, part-time rubber contractor, mechanic and automobile spare parts service man, and Mala, a homemaker, in Bengaluru in 1989. Originally from the Pazhanganatham hamlet in Madurai, the family lived in rented accommodation in Bengaluru’s Chandra Layout locality. Devaraja, who first raided Sukash’s home in 2011, remembers it as a modest lower middle-income household. Keen that their only child have a good education, Sukash’s parents sent him to the upscale Baldwin Boys’ High School in the city. While his classmates came to school in big fancy cars, Sukash would be dropped to school on his father’s scooter. Perhaps this early experience of socio-economic disparity led him to aspire for a more opulent lifestyle.

No one knows where Sukash picked up his first lessons in the art of the con. He had committed his first forgery even before he was eligible to apply for a driving licence. In April 2006, he forged the signature of the then police commissioner on a letter saying that he was allowed to drive cars and bikes anywhere in Karnataka. Some suspect his parents played a part in his education as a conman—they have been arrested thrice along with him, including in the very first con Sukash pulled.

In August 2007, the Bangalore police arrested Sukash and his parents for cheating a 76-year-old man of Rs 1.15 crore. They had allegedly promised the desperate man that they would help him free a plot of land acquired by the Bangalore Development Authority and even secure foreign investment for the construction of an apartment. Sukash claimed he was friends with Nikhil Gowda, son of the then Karnataka chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy. He apparently used the loot to buy five cars, including a BMW, and 12 watches. The family was out on bail soon and recently even got an acquittal in a lower court.

Sukash’s first con came before he was old enough to drive, forging the sign of a police commissioner on a letter that gave him licence to vroom

School had taught Sukash something else—the perks of privilege. The parents of some of his classmates were government servants. Fascinated by the doors that power and privilege opened up, he apparently became a careful observer of people of this class, imbibing their body language and mannerisms. After his first caper in 2007, Sukash allegedly began frequenting places where bureaucrats, businessman and politicians socialised. And it was in these elite hangouts that Sukash began absorbing information on government machinery, bureaucratic hierarchy, tendering practices and brokering. The cars he drove and the money he flaunted helped.

He then began carefully choosing his targets, researching them meticulously first. “Often, he knew more about the victims than they knew about themselves,” a Delhi Police official reveals. “He primarily targeted people who were either greedy or had a difficult job to be done. It could be a contract or a court case or even a school admission.” Along with the fancy cars, he also began living in upscale areas on rent and moving around with a gunman to impress unsuspecting victims. It’s a different matter that he once allegedly did not pay a gunman the salary he had promised him.

Most often, he would introduce himself as a relative of the person who could possibly get the job done for the victim. A Bangalorean recalls how when he first saw Sukash sitting one table away in a coffee shop, he was promising his unsuspecting victim admission for his son in a reputed school. He grandly claimed that he was the son of the school owner. Except that the man recounting this incident was the son of the school owner. Overhearing the blatant lie, this person confronted Sukash. A few slaps later, Sukash managed to escape and simply vanished from the scene for some time.


HOW SUKASH PULLED THE CON | The Rs 200 crore heist involving Ranbaxy owner’s wife


Not before learning something from the incident, though. That it was better to deceive people over the phone than in person. Before long, he had learned all that he needed to make a convincing impression as a person of influence on the phone. He freely used fake identities, modulated his voice and routed calls through government offices. After a second arrest in Bengaluru in 2009, he moved briefly to Madurai where he tried to dupe a cinema hall manager by promising him a new digital sound system. When the con backfired, Sukash tried to strangle the manager and was later arrested.

The following year, he moved to Chennai where he continued his con games. It was here that he first met his wife and later accomplice Leena Maria Paul, who was then a small-time Malayali actress. Born and brought up in Dubai to parents originally from Thrissur, Leena had dropped out of a dental sciences course in Bengaluru to pursue a career in films. She came to Chennai following an offer by Sukash to work in a Tamil film he would produce. He came to meet in her in Chennai in a luxury car with a red beacon and flanked by an assistant. He even created a persona to match—introducing himself as none other than the grandson of Karunanidhi, the chief minister at the time. Sukash and Leena fell in love and started living together, even after she discovered that her lover was nothing more than a petty conman.

People who saw them together at the time say it was an intense love affair. Sukash would drop Leena at work and wait outside the studio where she anchored a small segment in a TV series. When the show was abruptly pulled off the air, Sukash took the distraught Leena to a candlelit dinner in a five-star hotel, recalls an actor who knew Leena. Once, when her phone broke during a film shoot, she cried inconsolably as it was a token of love from Sukash. They both reportedly had each other’s names tattooed on their arms, a claim police officials have not been able to verify.

He chose his victims carefully, primarily targeting those who were either greedy or had a difficult job to be done, like a con tract or a court case or a school admission

It still isn’t clear whether Leena had become Sukash’s partner in crime by 2011, but she did help Devaraja, then chasing the fraudster for several cheating cases in Bengaluru, arrest him that year at a traffic junction in Chennai. Interestingly, Sukash was driving a yellow Tata Nano at the time. The conman was soon out on bail and headed to Kerala to make up with his wife who had meanwhile returned to her home state. The rapprochement seems complete, as Leena herself is now allegedly involved in diverting and routing her husband’s illegal earnings through Nail Artistry, a luxury nail art salon that she runs, with offices in Kochi, Chennai and Bengaluru. According to the ED, Nail Artistry’s earnings—it made Rs 4.79 crore in Chennai and Rs 1.21 crore in Kochi in FY21—are believed to be part of the Rs 200 crore Sukash extorted from his last con. Leena is currently an accused in four cases of cheating.

The couple stayed in Kochi till 2012, when Sukash was forced to flee the city after a textile group filed a case of cheating against him. He had taken Rs 20 lakh from the Kochi-based Emmanuel Silks, promising them that he would get Bollywood actor Katrina Kaif for a promotional programme that they were planning to host. He brought Telugu star Allu Arjun (who was yet to become the sensation that he did after Pushpa) instead, to inaugurate their showroom in Kottayam. Katrina was promised for a later date, but by then Sukash had moved to another city and fresh missions.

The first big caper

Sukash and Leena executed their first big con in 2013—siphoning Rs 12 crore from Canara Bank in Chennai. Sukash had contacted business couple M. Balasubramanian and Chitra, who ran a sanitary napkin-vending machine firm called Future Techniks, asking them to get in touch with one Jayakumar, a senior IAS officer in Karnataka, who would award them a contract for 30,000 such machines as part of the government’s free napkin scheme. When they called on the landline number given to them (located, incidentally, near the Vidhan Soudha), the officer’s secretary—none other than Leena herself, presumably—picked up the phone and confirmed that it was indeed the Karnataka secretariat. Sukash, impersonating an IAS officer, told Balasubramanian that he would be awarded an order worth Rs 132 crore, but only after he had raised Rs 19 crore to give them. Guided by the fake Jayakumar, the entrepreneur, who had an account with the Ambattur branch of Canara Bank, approached chief manager V. Jagadeesha for a loan of Rs 19 crore.

When Jagadeesha expressed his inability to sanction such a huge loan, Sukash, posing again as Jayakumar, called the bank manager and even sent government documents to convince him that the couple would indeed land a huge government contract. The loan was finally sanctioned, and the couple transferred the amount to the different bank accounts Sukash had opened. By the time the top officials of the bank cottoned on to what was happening and froze the accounts, Rs 12 crore had already been withdrawn. Both Sukash and Leena were arrested, though no charges could be brought against her eventually because no evidence was found to indicate her involvement except that she may have posed as Sukash/ Jayakumar’s secretary over the phone.


GIFTS OF LOVE? Jacqueline in a jam


Around the same time as he was masterminding this con, Sukash ran a parallel fraud in 2013. A stray advertisement in the daily newspaper by a textile firm called Skylark had caught his attention. “We tailor large quantities of clothes under bulk orders,” the ad read. Posing again as Karnataka IAS officer Jayakumar, he contacted the company over the phone, and told them he could get them a contract for school uniforms worth Rs 400 crore in return for a commission. Of course, the firm was left poorer by Rs 84 lakh by the time they discovered they had been scammed; Sukash himself had long vanished.

After securing bail in the bank fraud case, the couple moved to Mumbai and got married in 2015. In Maximum City, the duo ran a ponzi scheme through an unregistered firm called Lion Oak India, promising people high returns. All the investments, ranging from Rs 5,000 to Rs 5 lakh, were accepted only in cash and never deposited in any bank. Sukash would roam around with four bodyguards and a dummy pistol. The walls of his office in Goregaon had fake M.F. Husain paintings. A sword displayed prominently was passed off as once having belonged to Alexander the Great, which, he told potential investors, he had bought at an auction. Unfortunately for him, this run came to an end after the Mumbai Police arrested him in 2015 on an unknown tip-off that he was running an unregistered investment scheme and defrauding investors.

Even Tamil Nadu politician T.T.V. Dhinakaran was allegedly caught in Sukash’s fraud net in 2017. Having read about Sasikala’s nephew’s desperation to appropriate Jayalalithaa’s legacy and retain the “two leaves” election symbol of her party, the All India Anna DMK, Sukash approached Dhinakaran and told him that he knew officials in the Election Commission of India and could persuade them to rule in his favour for a consideration of Rs 50 crore. Later, while trying to bribe some ECI officials at a Delhi hotel, Sukash was arrested by the Delhi Police. Dhinakaran, on his part, denied the allegations.

The final heist

It was for this misdemeanour that Sukash was serving time as an undertrial in Tihar Jail when he discovered industrialist Shivinder Mohan Singh was a fellow inmate. Shivinder and his brother Malvinder—the former promoters of Religare Enterprises—were first arrested by the Delhi Police’s Economic Offences Wing in October 2019 for misappropriation of funds, cheating, criminal conspiracy and criminal breach of trust. Based on this, the ED began probing the money-laundering aspect and in December arrested the brothers under PMLA. In Tihar since, the two may have to spend 3-7 years in jail should they be convicted.

Sukash, meanwhile, researched Shivinder extensively, allegedly with explicit help from the jail officials. In the first half of 2020, he was transferred to Rohini jail where he hatched an elaborate plan to con Shivinder’s wife Aditi Singh. He allegedly bribed jail officials to get access to a cellphone and internet, while his associates kept supplying him with information on the movements of Aditi and other family members, inputs that he later used to intimidate her.

All the unusual activity in Aditi’s accounts alerted ED officials, who con fronted her. Breaking down, she revealed how she was being conned

Sukash first called Aditi’s cellphone on June 15, 2020. Though his smartphone had an Israeli SIM card, Sukash used a spoofing app, so that the number that flashed on Aditi’s phone was from the Union home ministry. Introducing himself as Union law secretary Anoop Kumar, Sukash told Aditi that he was calling on the instruction of the Prime Minister’s Office. Given Shivinder’s expertise in healthcare, Sukash/Kumar told Aditi, the government wanted to include him in a top committee on Covid and therefore wanted to help the jailed businessman get bail soon.

Sukash called Aditi again later in the day, this time posing as Abhinav, under-secretary to Kumar, and reiterated the government’s intention to help her family. It was after three calls that ‘Abhinav’ asked Aditi to contribute Rs 20 crore to the party fund. The payment was made in two instalments—Rs 1 crore routed to Hong Kong and Rs 19 crore delivered in cash in Delhi. Demands for more money followed. Simultaneously, Sukash recounted a lot of accurate personal details about the Singhs and their children, instilling in her the fear that he would actually harm them. So much so that Aditi could not bring herself to discuss the matter even with her husband or anyone else.

Aditi sold jewellery, borrowed money from friends and family and liquidated all her assets, including investments made for their children’s future, to arrange for the funds. Her wealth manager Shikha Singh introduced her to two individuals—Manoj Mangla and Manoj Godha—who helped her convert her assets into cash as well as transfers abroad in lieu of high commissions. Komal Poddar, bank manager at RBL Bank, and two other acquaintances, Navneet Jain and Rahul Wadhwa too helped with some transactions.


SUKASH CHANDRASHEKHAR | The privileged prisoner


Between June 2020 and May 2021, Aditi paid Sukash Rs 200 crore in 40 transactions. All the cash pickups in Delhi were done by Sukash’s aides Deepak Ramnani and Pradeep Ramdanee. The flurry of unusual activity aroused the suspicions of the ED, which was already monitoring Aditi’s transactions, in connection with the money-laundering case, that her husband was in jail for. When the agency confronted her, Aditi apparently broke down and told them what she was going through. It was at the ED’s instance that she filed a complaint with the Delhi Police. The latter, in turn, arres­ted Sukash on August 8, 2021, while the ED registered a money-laundering case against him based on the police FIR.

But if you thought the story ends here, think again. While tracking his money trail, the Delhi Police and the ED stumbled upon another of Sukash’s well-kept secrets.

The love of his life

Enter Bollywood actress Jacqueline Fernandez, who has now been named co-accused under PMLA for knowingly enjoying the “proceeds of the crime”—in this case the Rs 200 crore loot from Aditi Singh. The ED chargesheet details gifts worth around Rs 7 crore that Sukash apparently bestowed on Jacqueline and her family, though she has not admitted to accepting all the gifts mentioned in the list. The actress also claims she was not aware of Sukash’s real identity, but the ED chargesheet says that within a month of her conversations with Sukash, she had come across news articles detailing who he was, yet chose to continue accepting gifts from him.

Jacqueline’s father Elroy Fernandez is a Burgher, a Sri Lankan ethnic group of European origin. A salesman and DJ by profession, he had moved to Bahrain in the 1980s. Her mother Kim is of Malaysian and Canadian descent and is a former air hostess. The youngest of four children, Jacqueline studied mass communication in Australia. In 2006, she was crowned Miss Universe Sri Lanka. The 37-year-old actress came to India in 2009 for a modelling assignment (see Jacqueline in a Jam).

Lodged in Rohini jail, Sukash first contacted Jacqueline thro­ugh her make-up artiste Shaan Muttathil, whom he called from a landline number in December 2020. Identifying himself as a senior official from the home ministry, he insisted that Jacqueline talk to one Shekhar Ratna Vela from Chennai, a relative of former Tamil Nadu CM Jayalalithaa, and whose family owned Sun TV. When Shaan checked the number, he found it to be from the home ministry. Sukash had yet again successfully employed the spoofing tech to convince Jacqueline and her team that the instruction had indeed come out of the home ministry.

The credentials thus established, Jacqueline agreed to talk to Shekhar and by the end of January 2021 received a call from Shekhar alias Sukash. During their conversations, ‘Shekhar’ told Jacqueline that he was friends with Leonardo DiCaprio and could get her a role opposite the Oscar-winning actor in a Hollywood production.

Within two weeks of their first call, Shaan alerted Jacqueline about a news article featuring a person who looked very much like Sukash. When confronted, Sukash denied the report, claiming it was a political conspiracy to taint him and even broke down over the phone. Later, his accomplice and celebrity manager, Pinky Irani, also assured Jacqueline of Sukash’s innocence.

Meanwhile, the conman got interim bail for two weeks on June 4, 2021, which was later extended to July 2, 2021. In this one month, Jacqueline came to meet Sukash twice in Chennai, per the ED chargesheet. The photographs currently doing the rounds were allegedly taken at this time. Jacqueline, however, says that she met Sukash only once and that too because he was depressed following his uncle’s death. Shekhar alias Sukash had told her that it was his uncle, and not his father (for whose demise Sukash had got the bail), who had passed away. The communication between Sukash and Jacqueline ended following his arrest in August 2021.

But Jacqueline wasn’t Sukash’s only preoccupation in the time that he was out on interim bail. He was also allegedly busy conning ex-Telugu Desam MP Rayapati Sambasiva Rao. Accused in a bank fraud case, Rao was promised relief in return for money, claims the CBI, which is probing the case. Two of Sukash’s accomplices have been arrested in connection with the case.

Sukash the corporate lobbyist?

Despite the wealth of allegations against him, there is little to force Sukash to confess. He has already denied the charges of fraud and money-laundering against him. “I have made hundreds of crores from corporate lobbying, there is no need for me to con or cheat anyoneIt’s all from legitimate earnings and the same would be proved in the court of law very soon,” he wrote in the letter to the media. His lawyer Ashok Kumar Singh claims he earns money through real estate, consultation, brokerage, a salon and resort that he runs. Indeed, despite the 30-plus cases against him, he has not been convicted in a single one till date. In some of them, even the trials have not begun. The sections under which he has been charged attr­act a maximum imprisonment of 10 years, and most are bailable. His problems may begin now, after he has been booked under PMLA, where getting bail is next to impossible even though conviction carries a maximum of seven years in jail. Besides confiscating 26 cars, the ED has also attached Rs 13.21 crore lying in various bank accounts linked to Sukash.

In his conversations with Jacqueline, Sukash allegedly told her he was friends with Leonardo DiCaprio and would get her a role in one of his films

But then, anything is possible if you are Sukash Chandrashekhar. Between June 2018 and July 2021, he was officially out of jail, either on parole or on interim bail, first on account of his father’s ill health, then his mother’s illness, and finally to perform his father’s last rites, for nearly 300 days. He got bail from both the Supreme Court and the high courts, with top lawyers such as Mukul Rohatgi moving his bail applications.

All of which has perhaps bred a God complex in the man. Usually suave and soft-spoken and easily able to persuade his victims with smooth talk, Sukash allegedly turns aggressive and abusive when met with resistance. Some of his accomplices have told the police that he threatens them with dire consequences if they disobey his instructions, and is capable of executing the threats too. One such threat haunts Aditi Singh even today. When a crying Aditi had expressed her inability to pay any more and requested Sukash to spare her family or she would be forced to take her life, he told her heartlessly: “Sister, we will not let you live, and we will not let you die. We are God.” Posing as God. You cannot put it past him.


HIS OTHER HITS, AND MISSES

Sukash approached other Bollywood actresses too, with offer to gift cars. Not everyone could be lured

Left to right: Nora Fatehi; Janhvi Kapoor; Bhumi Pednekar; Sara Ali Khan; (Photos: Getty Images, Milind Shelte, Mandar Deodhar, Bandeep Singh)

NORA FATEHI

According to the ED chargesheet, in the last week of December 2020, Sukash bought a BMW car in the name of Mehboob Khan (Bobby Khan), the husband of actress Nora Fatehi’s cousin, for Rs 64 lakh. Sukash had initially offered to gift the car to Nora, but she asked him to talk to Mehboob. Earlier that month, Nora had attended a charity event organised by Sukash’s wife’s company Nail Artistry in Chennai. Nora claims the event was professionally organised by her agent and she did not personally know Sukash or his wife.

JANHVI KAPOOR

Sukash’s wife Leena invited Janhvi to inaugurate her salon, Nail Artistry, in Bengaluru on July 19, 2021. Unaware of their background, she did it in lieu of Rs 18.94 lakh as professional fees. Janhvi told the ED that on that day, she was also gifted a Christian Dior tote bag by Leena’s mother.

BHUMI PEDNEKAR

Sukash had approached Bhumi Pednekar by phone in January 2021, posing as a billionaire businessman and offered to gift her a car. But the actress declined the offer.

SARA ALI KHAN

The ED reports that Sukash approached her through WhatsApp in May 2021 and offered to send her gifts, including a car. After declining multiple times, she finally agreed to receive a box of chocolates from him. Later, Sukash sent her a Franck Muller watch along with the chocolates.


with Ajay Sukumaran

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