A time for cheer

With the pandemic receding for the present and the long and tortuous wait for the much delayed Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) trusteeship elections set for May 29, 2022, there is something to cheer this Jamshedi Navroz (barring the tragedy in Ukraine). Our cover story is of a young, single Irani Zoroastrian, Tinaz Nooshian, who has risen on her own merit to be the editor-in-chief of one of the country’s 10 top English newspapers, mid-day (see "Newswoman Nooshian," pg 70). While there are many women in journalism, editorship of the leading dailies is still male dominated.

With the elections set for summer, one can expect the months of March and April to be even hotter than usual. The election will be keenly contested with a plethora of candidates.

The holding of the elections was due to the persistent efforts of the two minority trustees, Noshir Dadrawala and Kersi Randeria. They finally forced the majority of three, BPP chairwoman Armaity Tirandaz, trustees Viraf Mehta and Xerxes Dastur, to agree to hold the elections as per the law rather than their personal whims. The former chairman of the BPP, Dinshaw Mehta who commands the three, may appeal to the Supreme Court. But the Bombay High Court Justices Shahrukh Kathawalla and Milind Jadhav have trod carefully to ensure a legally watertight case.

Should Dinshaw appeal, he will have to spend between Rs 25,00,000 (USD 33,151) to a crore (USD 132, 604) on legal fees, depending on the number of hearings. Instead, if he were to take a leaf from his lawyer friend Berjis Desai’s book and donate the amount to the BPP for any worthwhile cause, the community would benefit from his actions.

Before appealing, Dinshaw will have to assess the further damage to his image and that of his three loyalists. Of the three, only Dastur, on rare occasions, demonstrates some spine. But in the last instance he told the Court policy decisions should be put on hold when elections were due. A week or so later, on February 21 he agreed with his two counterparts to change leave and license agreements into tenancies. The move was a ploy to appeal to voters who reside in BPP managed housing colonies.

Ironically, when Dinshaw had first proposed the conversion to tenancy during the 2008 trusteeship elections, his two World Alliance of Parsi Irani Zarthoshtis (WAPIZ) electoral allies, Khojeste Mistree and Yazdi Desai, reportedly advised him against the change. They said the threat of terminating a license would serve as deterrent to interfaith marriages. Should a non-Parsi spouse decide to live in the premises, the license could be terminated by the majority trustees. Under tenancy laws it would be more difficult to evict the residents. Dinshaw then dropped the plan. Perhaps his proposing the scheme now indicated some desperation in his efforts to win votes for his candidates. Though once popular, Dinshaw’s electoral base has been eroded by his election delaying shenanigans. Voters resent those meddling with their rights.

Which of the five sitting trustees will contest is unknown. Should Tirandaz and Viraf stand, Dinshaw will back them fully. Dastur may or may not get Dinshaw’s unstinted support. Dastur had supported Dadrawala when he ventured on an indefinite fast for the elections to be held as per the scheme rather than the belated October 2022 date opted for by Tirandaz and Viraf. Dinshaw is unlikely to forget or forgive Dastur’s transgression. But, on the other hand, Dinshaw is quite capable of doing a volte-face. He supported Dr Zuleika Homavazir in her trusteeship bid even though she had earlier filed several cases against him when he was chairman. She alleged a leave and license flat she successfully bid for conferred ownership rights on her. But they made up and she became a regular contributor to the online weekly, Parsi Junction, brought out by Dinshaw loyalist Kersi Sethna.

Randeria is expected to stand again but Dadrawala is uncertain. Other likely candidates in the Randeria camp are WAPIZ chief executive officer and social worker Anahita Desai and former assistant customs commissioner and present honorary secretary of the Cusrow Baug United Sports and Welfare League, Hoshang Jal.

The advantage sitting trustees have is that they are known faces. Unless the other candidates are of some public standing in the community, they face an uphill task. In the 2008 election, the first to be held under adult franchise, Randeria and Berjis came forward with a list of very eminent, distinguished candidates. But they were not known to the rank and file of the community. Voters lean towards candidates they know personally and preferably have had some interaction with.

Though the 2022 elections will have many contestants, it will be less colorful than the 2008 elections. Primarily a code of conduct has come into effect and a candidate’s spending has been limited to a lakh of rupees (USD 1,327). The list of voters on the BPP electoral rolls contains names of out-of-town voters and those who may have moved elsewhere or have expired. Even if there are 15,000 actual voters, the number who are physically fit, who can and want to access one of the five voting centers will be low in number. At the last 2018 election in which Dastur won, around 6,000 Parsis voted.

What will be the key electoral issues? Probably housing and the BPP finances. Disposal of the dead, interfaith marriages, shortage of priests and related issues are unlikely to be of much import. With the Worli Prayer Hall easily accessible for those opting for cremation, the pressure for setting aside a bungli at Doongerwadi for those opting for cremation has lessened. And with interfaith marriages at 46% last year (see "Bombay: The Telling Figures for 2021," pg 166) there is not much to debate. People marry whom they please. The subject of women’s rights may be raked up but women’s issues have never held much sway in a male dominated society like the Parsis.

Many promises will be made during the campaigning, few will be kept. The one thing we can however pride ourselves on is that we finally have an electoral system like the one India has had over 70 years (except Parsis can still buy an extra vote). What we do not have are the safeguards of annual general meetings, a system of accountability, published budgets and accounts. Maybe in the years to come, we may have some of these other basic democratic features as well.