The poll battle in Karnataka may largely be between the Congress, the BJP and the JD(S) but there’s a new player in the state that has raised many an eyebrow. The 6-month-old All India Mahila Empowerment Party (MEP), which is registered with the Election Commission of India, is making its political entry in Karnataka and will be contesting all 224 Assembly constituencies. This despite having no roots in the state.
But what exactly is the MEP and who is it led by?
Founded by the CEO of Hyderabad-based Heera Group, Nowhera Shaikh, the MEP was launched last November in a star-studded event in New Delhi with tennis player Sania Mirza, film stars Sunil Shetty, Bobby Deol, Zeenat Aman, and choreographer Farah Khan among the attendees.
While the motto of the fledgling party is ‘Justice for humanity’, Nowhera Shaikh announced at the launch that the MEP would rally around women’s rights and gender justice.
"A sound society which recognizes equality of all its members can only build a healthy and strong nation. Empowering women is a means towards the empowerment of the larger society and the nation," Nowhera stated at the launch.
Despite the name and its stated objectives, the Mahila Empowerment Party has ended up fielding only 40 women in Karnataka’s 224 constituencies.
Siraj Jafferi, a party spokesperson told The Wire that only 30% of the applications the MEP received were from women. The Wire’s reporters Mahtab Alam and Hina Fathima also found that there were more men than women in the party office.
An MEP member told TNM on the condition of anonymity that party members have been working out of its office in the business centre of the Leela Palace, a seven-star hotel in Bengaluru.
"The online campaign has only begun in the last couple of weeks. The party's Twitter account was made in April and even a meticulous search will not reveal a digital footprint before that," says the member.
The party source also admitted that they were working with deep pockets. "The resources available are unlimited," he adds.
The MEP has been on a publicity blitzkrieg, with hoardings of Nowhera Shaikh plastered in districts across Karnataka. The party is spending a lot as they are running advertisements in a number of Kannada and English news channels too. The MEP has also brought in star campaigners like Bollywood actors Arbaaz Khan and Sohail Khan.
Who is Nowhera Shaikh?
Born in Tirupati, Nowhera Shaikh began her career in the field of education, starting an Islamic school for girls in the temple town of Andhra Pradesh in 1998. She then started Heera Gold Exports and Imports, trading in the commodity and now manages the Heera Group, which reportedly runs numerous businesses ranging from gold, diamonds, textiles, real estate development among others, with a presence in the Middle East, Canada, besides several states in India. Her company website describes Nowhera as “socially sensitive businesswoman”.
And despite her claims of philanthropy, the Heera Group has come under the Income Tax scanner on multiple occasions including most recently in October 2017 when IT officials found tax issues amounting to Rs 60 crore with Heera Gold Group.
B-team of the BJP?
Beyond the deep pockets, the fledgling party has also been accused by the Congress of being the B-team of the BJP, with the aim to split the ruling party’s minority votes.
A MEP member told TNM that there was a lack of seriousness among party members to adhere to any ideology.
“It is not strictly about the ideology but an attempt to cut into the Congress’ minority votes in every constituency,” said the source.
On May 4, party members tried to whip up support online by alleging that people affiliated to Congress pelted stones during a MEP rally in Govindpur in Sarvagnanagar constituency in Bengaluru. They claimed that Nowhera Shaikh narrowly escaped the incident while several MEP workers were injured and hospitalised.
Others also point to the MEP’s links with the saffron party. MEP’s Karnataka President Azhar Ali was with the BJP earlier as was another leader Farida Begum, reports The Wire. The website also reported that a member of the RSS was among those invited when the MEP announced its first list of candidates.
And while the MEP has denied the Congress’ allegations that it is a plant of the BJP, a recent advertisement showed party founder Nowhera congratulating Prime Minister Narendra Modi “for laying stone of starting bullet train and for initiating swachh bharat abhiyan”.
Lending more substance to Congress’ allegations is when the Election Commission’s surveillance squad found MEP and BJP campaign material on the same truck in April.