High stakes at an ill-tempered Parsi election

Universal adult franchise may seem a grand term to attach to 8,000 voters. But apply this figure to the diminutive Parsi community, and it looks significant. Over the past two weeks, Parsis have been coming out to elect a new member to one of their richest charitable trusts, the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP). Election expenses are not to be winked at, with about Rs 25 lakh of trust money being spent on things like rain shelters for voters. Candidates are spending greater amounts to court voters with dhansak dinners and full-page newspaper ads.

By Neenaz Ichaporia | Outlook India

“They are spending a lot, holding a lot of meetings, giving dinner boxes, even having sit-down dinners. They’re pulling out all the stops,” says Jehangir Patel, editor of Parsiana. Adds BPP chairman Dinshaw Mehta: “We tried to avoid these elections, but politics and party power prevailed. Now we are down to mud-slinging and maligning.” That is because of what is at stake. The BPP is one of the biggest landlords in Mumbai, with nearly 5,000 flats to its name. In a city where property is gold, the BPP’s prime acres stretch from Colaba to Jogeshwari. It’s also the body the Centre approaches before legislating on matters relating to Parsis, like adoption, marriage and divorce. The BPP matters, as the largest number of Parsis in the world live in Mumbai.

The polls for the seat in the trust can tilt a vital balance between liberals and conservatives among the Parsis.

Yet, acrimony has brought the trust into conflict with itself. Normally, the seven trustees serve a seven-year term. The current board was elected in 2008, under the scheme of universal adult franchise, a first in the trust’s 340-year history. Two of the trustees come from the overtly conservative WAPIZ (World Alliance of Parsi Irani Zarthoshtis), others were elected independently and one candidate, Noshir Dadrawala, belongs to the liberally inclined AFP (Adult Franchise for Progress) panel. This March, Dadrawala resigned, citing irreconcilable differences with the board. He fumes, “There was a complete loss of cooperation, I wasn’t given basic information like minutes of meetings or accounts. Six people ganged up against me. None of them behaving as Parsis, only as politicians.” And now there is a fierce fight for his seat, as it could tilt the balance between conservatives and liberals.

The split goes back a long way, to a wider schism between orthodox and liberal Parsis. For the past few decades, the burning issue has been how to halt the declining numbers, with the 2001 census saying less than 70,000 Parsis remain in India. The liberals support inter-faith marriages and other measures that have been taboo thus far, such as conversion and accepting into the fold children of Parsi women married to non-Parsi men. These are measures the conservatives are bitterly opposed to.

In the current election, the orthodox alliance is backing Anahita Desai. But the opposition is crying foul, pointing out that Desai’s husband serves on the board and that the couple are beneficiaries of the same trust, living in trust-subsidised housing. Desai vehemently denies allegations of nepotism: “Nobody has questioned my capability, reputation and integrity. Don’t disqualify a person just because of the wife tag.”

Of the other three candidates, the likely contender is Muncherji Cama, scion of the prestigious Cama family, and himself on the boards of several other charitable trusts. Cama has found the backing of several powerful Parsis, including the BPP chairman. “Although WAPIZ and I fought the last elections together, we have parted ways. Anahita Desai is a housewife and a social worker. Muncherji Cama has been doing human service for years, he has the experience we need,” says Dinshaw Mehta. And so it goes, back and forth. Yet, once the canvassing, sloganeering and finally the polls are over, what about the aam Parsi? They may be few in number, but they are big on passion and debate.