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Changing alliances?

At first it appeared the voter turnout was dismal. Three Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) trusteeship elections in four years would tire even the most ardent proponents of universal adult franchise (UAF). But the long lines at the five polling centers that were missing this July 1 was not a result of voter empathy or fatigue. Around 20% more Parsis voted this time than in 2016. The reason was the outstanding arrangements made by the BPP trustees and staff.

Not only were there 10 electronic voting machines (EVMs) provided at each venue but also shamianas to protect voters from the rain or sun, chairs, drinking water, tea and coffee dispensing machines. Except for some technical hitches before the start of the voting that caused some delays, voters barely had to wait five minutes to vote.

Auditors from the consultancy firm of Deloitte were present at each center as well as Bombay High Court appointed commissioners. At first this appeared an overkill but with the results being so close, a victory margin of 89 votes out of a total of 6,018 cast, the presence of the outside agencies removed any room for allegations of rigging.

This was a far cry from 10 years ago when the long line of mostly elderly voters standing in the hot sun without any drinking water at Andheri’s S. B. Bharucha Baug prompted activist Kersi Randeria and others to arrange for the purchase and distribution of bottled drinking water.

The improved facilities is one visible indication that UAF can result in a responsive administration. The next is that 5,730 Parsis took the trouble to vote (5,442 general voters and 288 donors who get two votes each).That it did not rain no doubt assisted the turnout. Sadly, a few were turned away because they did not have an original, government issued photo identity card in addition to the BPP issued certificates. One elderly gentleman at the Dadar center lamented it was impracticable for him to return to his Dockyard residence by train, climb three stories to his flat and then return.The BPP certificates that voters laminated also proved a problem as they could not be rubber stamped nor have the date, etc written behind them. Here an earlier BPP plan to issue photo identity cards was scuttled by opponents who alleged the information collected to issue the cards would be misused.

A great part of the voter turnout was due to the two main candidates, World Alliance of Parsi Irani Zarthoshtis (WAPIZ) chief executive officer Anahita Desai and chartered accountant Ervad Xerxes Dastur who campaigned extensively in all the geographic locations where Parsis reside. The community had to choose between two competent individuals, both with a history of involvement with the community. They put up a sustained, decorous campaign. Compared to the scandalous emails the BPP trustees often exchange, this was dignified. The only deciding factor for voters was whether they wanted a husband-wife duo on the seven-member board of trustees or not. That too both office bearers of the traditionalist WAPIZ. By a very slim margin of 1.5% the community said ‘no.’

This was the second time Desai had entered the fray. Her track record of service to the community and her considerable administrative skills would have been an asset. But along with her husband, BPP chairman Yazdi Desai, the two would control 28% of the voting power. But as she rightly pointed out, even if she agreed with her husband on all issues, the two of them would have the same voting record as existing BPP trustees Armaity Tirandaz and Viraf Mehta who vote in tandem.

Yazdi’s endorsement of his wife’s candidature in 2011 saw the board split between him, and his onetime political ally, then BPP chairman Dinshaw Mehta. The break was exceedingly acrimonious and resulted in the BPP accomplishing very little in what remained of Dinshaw’s tenure and the starting of Yazdi’s. Dinshaw rightly perceived Yazdi’s gambit as a bid to gain control of the BPP from him. He convinced The Bombay Samachar chairman Muncherji Cama to stand while Randeria also supported Cama with his considerable electoral clout. In a no-holds-barred contest, Cama won. The enmity between the Mehta and Desai families continue to this day.

Subsequently in the 2015 BPP elections when Randeria backed Yazdi’s candidature, he earned Dinshaw’s ire.

Having viewed the fallout of the electoral battle in 2011 why did Yazdi try the same gambit now? He must have realized he would alienate his three allies on the board, namely Noshir Dadrawala, Randeria and Zarir Bhathena. As it is his relationship with Dadrawala is strained and Bhathena has no love lost for either of the Desais who bitterly opposed his plans to develop Hilla Towers in the Lalbaug Wadia Agiary compound.

Yazdi could have settled on an acceptable candidate to all but he opted for a power grab. He has the Federation of the Parsi Zoroastrian Anjumans of India under his total control. He wanted a repeat performance at the BPP. He almost succeeded but his attempt has resulted in another Mehta nominee on the board and his own alliance weakened. His folly also resulted in Anahita having to face a second defeat. Her ability to get things done unofficially in the BPP will also now be hampered.

Dastur will have to cope with a divided board. There will be pulls and tugs from all sides. If he blindly sides with Tirandaz and Viraf on issues he will be labeled a Dinshaw stooge. If he takes an independent stand, he may find himself friendless. The voters, in their wisdom have given him a mandate, albeit a very slim one. He has now to prove he’s the right person for the job.


Villoo Poonawalla