Rayomand Coins
 

New trustees for Navroz

Ever since the 2008 Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) trusteeship elections were held for the first time under universal adult franchise (UAF) the community has been on a roller-coaster ride. For once every registered Parsi voter had a direct say in the election of his/her leaders. Thus it is not surprising that every action or inaction of the trustees, real or imagined, was commented on, scrutinized, praised or criticized.

The growing popularity and influence of social media, especially WhatsApp, gave a say to everyone with a smart phone. News, comments, analysis, innuendos, truths, half-truths and lies made the rounds with lightning speed. In addition, in 2011 the Parsi Times weekly was launched by industrialist, community activist and later a BPP trustee, Kersi Randeria. In 2017 his arch opponent, former BPP chairman, Dinshaw Mehta’s views were published in the Metro Junction (MJ) weekly from the Bombay Samachar stable. After MJ’s closure, Mehta loyalists launched the Parsi Junction (PJ) fortnightly in February 2019. With the onslaught of the pandemic the paper took on a weekly digital avatar.

In the last quarter of 2020 Poll Khol Sacchu Bol (reveal the secret, speak honestly), a digital fortnightly attacking Mehta and his son, BPP trustee Viraf was launched. Poll’s tone appears even more vituperative than PJ’s.

With two seats on the BPP board being vacant, the community will be preparing for an election to be held on March 14 this year. BPP trustee Zarir Bhathena passed away in June 2020 and on December 23, BPP chairman Yazdi Desai resigned citing ill health following a stroke in April 2020 (see "BPP trusteeship elections," Events and Personalities, pg 10). His departure marks the end of a turbulent 12-year era of two chairmen (Desai’s from 2015 to 2020 and predecessor Dinshaw’s from 2008 to 2015).

As chairman, Desai broke ties with his ally Randeria and all his other co-trustees, isolating himself on the board and at one stage even hiring bouncers to unsuccessfully prevent four of his co-trustees from attending a Federation of the Parsi Zoroastrian Anjumans of India meeting in Bombay.

Dinshaw’s tenure witnessed one of the most acrimonious periods that saw around four crore rupees being frittered away in legal fees to prevent two priests from praying at Doongerwadi (the BPP lost the case in the Bombay High Court but managed to save a little face through mediation directed by the Supreme Court). One of the bitterest election battles ensued between Dinshaw and his former World Alliance of Parsi Irani Zarthoshtis (WAPIZ) electoral associates that split the BPP and eventually resulted in Dinshaw losing his majority on the board to Khojeste Mistree and Desai.

Desai’s wife, social worker and chief executive officer of WAPIZ, Anahita, has said she will contest the seat. She had stood twice before but had lost as the community was wary of a husband-wife duo serving simultaneously on the board. It is expected that her candidature will not be opposed by either of the main kingmakers, Dinshaw and Randeria. One or both may even lend tacit or overt support.

The name of lawyer and community activist Berjis Desai has been suggested for the second seat but Berjis indicated he had reservations about standing. A liberal turned traditionalist, he too would have the support of Dinshaw and Randeria, both his allies. Anahita and Berjis (if he stands) would be largely independent which would assure a more harmonious functioning of the board. If Berjis opts out and no consensus candidate is found, a bitter contest would ensue as that seat will determine whether Dinshaw or Randeria control a majority.

Several critics and even laypeople attribute the airing of community squabbles, claims, counterclaims, insults and personal attacks to the opening up of the franchise. They forget how easily, under the old, cumbersome, impractical scheme, a small coterie could and would easily control or manipulate the electorate. Imagine a scheme that required Parsis to vote for over a thousand candidates at one shot, 95% of whom they did not know or had never heard of; or how money could legally buy a direct vote. No doubt in those days rabble-rousing, demagoguery and mudslinging were limited because the voter base was minuscule; attendance at candidate meetings was restricted to only donors and elected Anjuman Committee members. Everyone else, including the Parsi Press, was barred entry.

One reason why individuals view UAF with disdain is due to the assumption that elections are about electing the most meritorious candidates, not the most popular. But then in countries where the electorate is controlled or non-existent, leaders are replaced through violence or skullduggery. There is no substitute for legal and peaceful transition of political power other than holding free and fair elections.

Nearly all major Parsi and Zoroastrian anjumans/associations in India and abroad have been practicing UAF, either since the inception of the body or soon thereafter. Zoroastrians in North America and elsewhere have democratic constitutions and limited terms of office. Despite their restricted numbers they produce new, capable leaders. What most of the democratically elected anjumans in India lack is a fixed term of office. The old leadership remains entrenched and the entry of newcomers is restricted to those who do not pose a threat to the status quo. The BPP has a limit on the number of years a trustee can serve but the figure is 21 years! Each term of a trustee is for seven years during which he/she is not obliged to even once give an account of the work done or to publish and make available annual accounts. Even the sporadically published BPP Review has disappeared since the past eight years or so.

Whether electoral reforms will even feature in this election is a question. There are no doubt other pressing issues, the financial straits of the BPP being perhaps the number one worry. Religion may not be that much of an issue. The Worli Prayer Hall has come to be regarded as a viable alternative for those who opt to be cremated rather than be consigned to the dakhmas. The facility has proved to be a blessing for those Parsis who succumbed to Covid and perforce had to be cremated.

Whatever the outcome, the March election will create an awareness in the community and provide a glimmer of hope of better times to come.

 



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Interesting! Would never have known all this otherwise.
- Sunnu Golwalla
- 08-Jan-2021

 

Villoo Poonawalla