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The Desais and the Dastur

The Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) does not have a formal two-party system for contesting trusteeship elections. But the last two elections and the forthcoming one on July 1, 2018 indicate two distinct camps at play. One is headed by the current BPP chairman Yazdi Desai along with his co-trustee Kersi Randeria, and the other by former BPP chairman Dinshaw Mehta. While Desai is a traditionalist and Randeria liberal, what unites them is their determination to limit Mehta’s clout.

Desai has a personal loathing for Mehta following their fallout around 2011 when Desai supported the candidature of his wife Anahita, and Mehta and Randeria backed Muncherji Cama. Anahita lost but is now contesting again for the seat being vacated by Cama. While Yazdi has said publicly he will take a neutral stand, as befits a chairman, there is no doubt with whom his loyalties lie. Whether Randeria will overtly or covertly support Anahita is not known. But he has no known animosity toward her main opponent, chartered accountant Xerxes Dastur, except that he is the candidate favored by Mehta. Both Anahita and Dastur are Rustom Baug residents and there is little love lost between them. Both are contesting for the second time. Anahita lost in 2011 and Dastur in 2015.

At present Mehta’s loyalists on the BPP board are his son, Viraf and Armaity Tirandaz. If Dastur wins, the Mehta camp will still be in the minority on the seven-member board. But the other four are not as united as before. Noshir Dadrawala had sent in a letter of resignation and made public his unhappiness with Desai’s autocratic style of functioning. His resignation letter would have been considered technically invalid because he had addressed it to his fellow trustees and not the chairman. The Assistant Charity Commissioner had so ruled in the case of Cama’s resignation this April. Dadrawala’s reasoning for so addressing the letter was that Desai holds the post "by default (seniority) and not because he deserves it."

On May 24, Dadrawala sent an email to his co-trustees stating he would "continue as a trustee" for after due thought he had reconsidered his resignation on three grounds: he did not wish to foist another election on the community; he had been assured that some of the issues he raised would be addressed; and lastly, keeping the sentiments of his well-wishers in mind.

The same day, Yazdi emailed "Noshir can and should stay." BPP trustee Zarir Bhathena emailed "Thanks Noshir for taking a wise decision," while Randeria termed Dadrawala, "an excellent trustee, knowledgeable, with a big heart and unchallenged commitment to the cause of charity and community." Randeria added he agreed with Dadrawala’s suggestion that for "greater progress and smoother functioning the trustees need to work more amicably and avoid confrontation, both during the meeting and in our internal correspondence" (see "Low-down on the BPP," pg 28). Whether Tirandaz and Viraf also wrote to Dadrawala is not known.

If Anahita wins, Yazdi will be in full control of the board as long as he does not alienate either Dadrawala, Randeria or Bhathena. Dinshaw had been unmindful of his co-trustee Arnavaz Mistry and when she switched sides to the Khojeste Mistree-Jimmy Mistry-Yazdi combine, he was reduced to a minority. Anahita is believed to be even more orthodox than Yazdi but if she and her husband push the traditionalists’ agenda too far, the other three may rebel. So far they have supported Yazdi even when he violated the most cardinal rule of the Federation of the Parsi Zoroastrian Anjumans of India (FPZAI): not interfering in the internal workings of an anjuman.

Two women had filed an Originating Summons in the Calcutta High Court inquiring who had the right of entry to the local fire temple. The Yazdi controlled FPZAI decided to intervene despite strong objections from the Calcutta anjuman. Yazdi justified the intrusion on the grounds of defending the faith. But as Justice Frank Beaman of the Bombay High Court observed in the historic Petit vs Jeejeebhoy case of 1908, "This is not religion, it has nothing to do with religion: it is essentially distinctly irreligious; but it is pure unadulterated Oriental caste."

Yazdi also fell out with three of his co-trustees after he withdrew support to former BPP trustee and WZO Trust Funds chairman Dinshaw Tamboly’s candidature for a seat on the National Commission for Minorities. Tamboly is a strong ally and friend of the trio.

Even if the three middle-of-the road trustees try to curtail the traditionalists’ agenda, Yazdi can count on his foes, Tirandaz and Viraf for support. They espouse the same racial and gender discrimination policies as the Desais and appeal to the same electorate.

Dastur also is no liberal. At the Ripon Club where he is the president of the managing committee, he initially agreed to frame and put to vote within three months a resolution admitting Parsi Zoroastrian women as full-fledged members. He then flip-flopped, delaying the issue indefinitely. He may have sensed contesting a BPP election as a person who supports gender equality would not gell well with voters who view women as second class citizens.

The three other contestants in the fray are inconsequential. Kersi Sethna and Eric Dhatigara have contested and lost before. They are viewed as Dinshaw loyalists, from whose platforms the Desais can be targeted. Ratan Patel is seen as a disgruntled licensee of Godrej Baug who is reportedly facing eviction proceedings.

Anahita is viewed favorably on account of her prodigious social work. She is approachable and helpful, while Yazdi is more reserved and taciturn. She is a capable organizer with an eye for detail. Under her and Tannaz Parakh’s editorship, the WAPIZ (World Alliance of Parsi Irani Zarthoshtis) Page in The Free Press Journal hit out boldly against Dinshaw and the liberal caucus. Anahita is the chief executive officer of the now almost moribund organization.

A successful chartered accountant, Dastur is more flexible in his approach to issues which may make him a good team player. Politics is the art of compromise, of give and take. A resolute individual may have limited effectiveness. His father Vispi is in the forefront of the Bombay Parsee Association, the Iran League and other organizations for which he has worked diligently over the years. Xerxes does not have the same grass roots connect as Anahita. That is where Dinshaw’s well-oiled political machinery comes to play. Dinshaw was a hands-on trustee, always ready to assist. Even his opponents, or those who have suffered with some of his policies, admit he is helpful. From his trusts he hands out monthly doles to the financially disadvantaged. His family have been involved in municipal politics for over 50 years.

Whatever the outcome, the status quo and functioning of the BPP board is unlikely to change. The question is how well will Anahita or Xerxes fit in and whether the workings of the BPP will improve, remain the same or deteriorate. Perhaps the conduct of the candidates and their supporters during the electioneering will provide an indication of what is to follow.



Villoo Poonawalla