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The voters’ dilemma

When the first Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) trusteeship elections under Universal Adult Franchise (UAF) were held in September 2008 there was no oral or written code of conduct to govern the electioneering. Seven years later as the community prepares for elections this September for five trusteeship seats, efforts are under way to curb the excesses of the past.

With the intention "to provide a level playing field to all individuals contesting future BPP trustee elections," seven former trustees and other "concerned Zoroastrians" have suggested various measures the BPP should put into practice. These recommendations include restricting the amount a candidate may spend to a maximum of Rs 3,00,000; barring incentives or inducements to voters such as food boxes, gifts, etc; prohibiting "personal defamatory attacks or character assassination" against competing candidates; not providing transportation to electoral meets or voting; and so on.

"It is now for the present trustees of the BPP to consider implementing the revised scheme into which the code of conduct has been incorporated and move the … Bombay High Court for sanction," they wrote.

Time taken to implement any proposed code of conduct however should not serve as an excuse to delay the elections as has happened in the past and extend the present trustees’ term beyond seven years.

As it is most Parsis feel a seven-year term to be extensive. In a poll conducted for Parsiana end-2013 by the reputed Hansa Research Group (HRG), a majority of the respondents favoured a three to five-year term.

The BPP election scheme empowers the trustees "in the event of a day for an election not being fixed during the three months from the date when such vacancy shall have occurred… (to) apply to a judge of the High Court in chambers… for sanctioning such extension."

Misconceptions have caused many to blame adult franchise for the present mess in the BPP. They want to hark back to the old indirect system, totally unmindful of how in 2007-2008 the World Alliance of Parsi Irani Zarthoshtis (WAPIZ) controlled the General Register of voters. Additionally the Donor Register was and could be easily manipulated by investing a few lakh rupees to enrol more voters. Any attempt to deny that fundamental right which nearly all other anjumans and associations across the globe enjoy, would be retrograde, suicidal and vehemently opposed. The HRG poll showed nearly 90% of the respondents favored adult franchise.

If Parsis are upset with the outcome of the first batch of trustees elected under adult franchise, they must keep in mind this was the premier BPP election in which the Bombay community had a direct say. Since then, aspiring trustees and voters have matured. By electing Muncherji Cama in 2011 the electorate opted for an independent person with a firm grounding in the management of trusts, law, labor relations, housing and finance. And whatever the merits of his opposing candidate Anahita Desai, wife of sitting trustee Yazdi Desai, the community did not want a husband-wife duo simultaneously on the BPP, nor a WAPIZ controlled board.

BPP chairman Dinshaw Mehta’s term expires this July, but according to reports, elections for his seat will be held in September along with those of BPP trustee Arnavaz Mistry, Jimmy Mistry, Khojeste Mistree and Yazdi who will complete their seven-year term. BPP trustee Armaity Tirandaz joined the board in 2009, successfully contesting the seat left vacant by the untimely death of her husband Rustom. In 2011 Cama won the seat vacated by Noshir Dadrawala who was hounded out by Mehta, Mistree and Yazdi.

Cama’s bitterly fought contest against Anahita caused the schism between Mehta on the one hand and WAPIZ founder trustees Mistree and Yazdi on the other. Until that time the Mehta-Mistree camps were united. Subsequently they split, with Mehta initially leading a four to three majority on the seven-member board. Arnavaz switching loyalty to the Jimmy, Mistree and Yazdi camp changed the equation. Mehta who completes 21 years in office cannot seek reelection as according to the BPP election scheme finalized by the Bombay High Court in April 2007, "No person who has been a trustee for three consecutive terms or for 21 years in the aggregate shall be eligible for reelection as a trustee."

Of the other four trustees, Jimmy, Mistree and Yazdi are not expected to seek reelection. Arnavaz is reported to be standing, as are Anahita and builder Zarir Bhathena. The Desais and Bhathena are implacable foes having fought several legal battles over the construction of Hilla Towers in Lalbaug.

Who will be the other contestants is unclear. Several names are being bandied about such as former Central Bank of India chairperson and managing director Homai Daruwala and industrialist Capt Percy Master. But whether either of them will stand is not known.

Due to the sullied image of the BPP many suitable candidates are reluctant to enter the fray. The warring trustees are, in the words of Yazdi, following a "scorched earth" policy. They are quarrelling over trivial and major issues — whether to give permission for film shooting in the baugs (a source of income for the trust), where to source the money for the payment of bonus/salary, who is accountable for the cash found in the cupboards on BPP premises, who should sign cheques, to pay or not pay certain lawyers’ fees, to settle or continue litigating over the BPP imposed ban barring two priests from performing any religious ceremonies at Doongerwadi and two fire temples controlled by the trust, and so on.

Housing allotments are on hold following a 14-month-old Charity Commissioner (CC) "status quo" order on all BPP properties issued in the wake of a move by Arnavaz, Jimmy, Mistree and Yazdi to oust/suspend Mehta over alleged financial irregularities. The BPP is now facing a financial crunch as nearly all its income is derived from property transfers/sales/leases. Donations dried up a long time ago. Salaries and bonuses are delayed leading to unrest amongst the 250 to 300 employees. The return of a Diwali gift by Yazdi to the employees’ union has upset the body’s leadership. A new labor agreement is due this January.

The BPP has been without a chief executive officer (CEO) for over 14 months. Their acting CEO Cawas Panthaki has put in his papers. Another executive, Pheroze Patel who fell out of favor with the Mistree/Yazdi camp and was suspended, has resigned. How the leaderless and demoralized BPP staff is going to manage the forthcoming elections, in addition to their routine duties, is a cause for concern. In the 2008 elections the names of many deceased voters figured in the voter list. Ensuring the electoral rolls are error free will be a mammoth undertaking. The BPP election scheme specifies, "The trustees shall cause to be prepared a list of persons entitled to vote… whose names appear on the General Register or the Donor Register 60 days immediately preceding the date fixed for such trustee election. Any error or omission in the list shall not disqualify any voter or affect the validity of any election."

Even assuming the voting arrangements are satisfactory, more worrying is the dearth of suitable candidates. If the BPP is to function as the apex Bombay trust, good people must once again step forth.



 

Villoo Poonawalla