Rayomand Coins

A tame election?

Free and fair elections arouse strong emotions. Regardless of who wins and by how much, the results are viewed with either elation or disbelief. When former US President Donald Trump lost to his Democratic Party opponent, he alleged that the election had been "stolen," without presenting any evidence. So also in Burma (now Myanmar) the military imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the winning party. The military junta claimed the elections were fraudulently conducted and dispersed protesting demonstrators with water cannons, rubber — and possibly real — bullets. This despite Suu Kyi defending the junta’s genocide of Rohingya Muslims before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. There is no loyalty between autocrats.

The Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) trusteeship elections are tamer affairs. In the past a few scurrilous pamphlets would be circulated, newspaper advertisements or posters would promote one aspirant and belittle another. Today the pros and cons, the support and resentment are largely channeled through social media. But unlike in conventional media, there is no limit on space nor any editor to vet the text before uploading. On anonymous posts everyone and every institution is fair game.

The pandemic has further compounded the election fervor as the fear of contracting the virus will deter voters from attending campaign meetings. No aspirant wants to face rows of empty chairs or be accused of endangering people’s health. As it is the community largely comprises of the elderly, the most vulnerable section of society. And co-morbidities abound (obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure...).

With only two frontrunners, social worker Anahita Desai and lawyer Berjis Desai, in the fray of eight, some view the forthcoming elections as a waste of money. While there is no specific amount mentioned, an educated guess by a BPP trustee put the amount at around 25 to 30 lakh rupees. There is also the possibility of one of the aspirants, whose candidacy is in doubt as her proposer is said to profess the Christian faith, moving the court for an adjournment on the grounds that names of several deceased Parsis appear on the electoral list.

Since there are two seats vacant and two main contenders unopposed by both the predominant kingmakers in the community, a call to summon outside monitors as in the recent past, is unlikely. This should result in a substantial saving.

Probably only half of the candidates will campaign actively. Berjis has already stated he does not intend to canvas for votes. He said, however, he would reply to any questions Parsiana may put to him (we intend to send a questionnaire to all the eight). Some candidates are put up to take potshots at opponents of the major power brokers. Others register as candidates because they think they have the wherewithal and the ability to make a difference. Several may feel they need to voice their own and others’ sentiments and grievances.

The two Desais have an edge because they have been involved with the community at the decision making level for many years. Berjis has been following community developments since his college days. Being the only child of an editor father, he took to writing early in life and often wrote on community matters, especially politics. After more or less retiring from an active legal career, he devotes more of his time to writing, which includes columns in every issue of Parsiana over the past five years on prominent, but often eccentric, Parsis, as well as his recollections of his childhood days in Navsari. He was active in the erstwhile Committee for Electoral Rights (CER) movement launched initially to register voters and then put up trusteeship candidates in the early 1980s. It was then that he made his acquaintance with Dinshaw Mehta who had captured the graduates register on the old electoral scheme. They became good friends and Mehta went on to become a trustee and later chairman of the BPP.

Mehta is supporting Berjis’s candidature. Berjis’s legal acumen and knowledge of court craft made possible the transition from an archaic, easily manipulable election scheme to universal adult franchise (UAF). In the 2008 trusteeship election for seven candidates, the first to be held under UAF, Berjis along with then community activist Kersi Randeria put up a panel of seven prominent achievers and eminent individuals, only one of whom won. The other six were not familiar faces in the community. An aspiring BPP trustee is expected to have made a substantial community, grassroots contribution. There are no shortcuts here. Randeria subsequently went on to become a BPP trustee.

Anahita has been working at the grassroots level since the early 2000s, even before her husband, the former BPP chairman Yazdi Desai became a trustee in 2008. She and activist Tannaz Parakh edited The WAPIZ (World Alliance of Parsi Irani Zarthoshtis) Page that used to appear in the erstwhile Afternoon Despatch and Courier and later The Free Press Journal. She represented several traditionally sympathetic anjumans at the fractious Federation of the Parsi Zoroastrian Anjumans of India meetings. She organizes the Cama Baug sales where Parsi entrepreneurs can, at nominal cost, sell their wares.

At one time Anahita and Berjis were at the opposing ends of the political spectrum. Berjis was an avowed liberal who wrote disparagingly of the traditionalists, even terming them "fruitcakes." He favored cremation over dakhmenashini and married outside the fold. But over the last few years he has been leaning more to the traditionalists’ camp, consigning his mother’s body to the towers of silence rather than a crematorium. He lent his legal and financial support to appeal to the courts to shift the underground metro railway tunnels several meters away from beneath a part of the H. B. Wadia Atash Behram. Though a section of the orthodox still view him with distrust (see "Mudslinging and manifestoes," pg 20) many others remain silent and may even tacitly favor his candidature.

Anahita on the other hand has been a hardcore traditionalist throughout, opposing the formation of a world body lest overseas associations that permit non-Parsi spouses as members would join the global organization and thereby dilute the racial purity of the Parsis. She has stood twice before for trusteeship but lost both times, the second narrowly. Voters were opposed to a husband and wife serving as trustees of the BPP at the same time. That reservation is no longer applicable as Yazdi stepped down from chairmanship in December following a stroke.

Of the remaining six candidates, Kersi Sethna, a Mehta loyalist, edits Parsi Junction; Kaikhushroo Irani edits Parsi Khol, Sachu Bol, a sporadic, online newsletter that attacks Mehta and is viewed as being sympathetic to Randeria; Tehmtan Dumasia, a caterer, is involved with Godrej Baug politics; Farhanaz Irani, a former airline employee is seen at Iranian Zoroastrian Anjuman events; Dr Zuleika Homavazir, an educationist has been embroiled in some litigation over housing with the BPP; and Adil Irani, a former purser with Air India is new to Parsi politics. Sethna, Dumasia and Homavazir have contested unsuccessfully in the past.

It is estimated that between 3,000 to 5,000 Parsis will show up to vote at the five different centers on Sunday, March 14. While the pandemic may deter many voters from frequenting the booths, much will depend on how the Mehta, Randeria and WAPIZ camps manage to coax voters out of their homes. Around end 2022, three more seats will be up for reelection. Elections keep everyone on edge. They can be a cleansing operation or they can further sully the atmosphere. But it’s still the only time the community, if it chooses wisely, can set things right.


Villoo Poonawalla