By Nauzer Bharucha
MUMBAI: Parsis may be one of the most literate and progressive communities in the country. But for the past 350 years, a vast majority of them in Mumbai had no stake in appointing trustees to the powerful apex body–the Bombay Parsi Punchayat (BPP)–that has a corpus of Rs 85 crore, controls 4,500 community flats and holds land in the city worth tens of thousands of crores including the sprawling Towers of Silence property at Malabar Hill.
Now for the first time in nearly 100 years, in a path-breaking move, the Punchayat has moved the Bombay high court, seeking to introduce universal adult franchise, where every community member over 21 years will have the right to cast his vote to appoint a trustee.
Over the past couple of decades, community activists have protested that the BPP has become a small club of elitist and influential people who manage to win elections by influencing just about 2,000 eligible voters. Currently, a Parsi can become a voter only if he donates Rs 25,000 to the Punchayat or gets elected through an electoral college.
If the high court approves the universal franchise scheme, then close to 40,000 eligible Parsi voters will be able to participate in the electoral process.
“The Parsi community has developed a very strong consensus that the trustees should be elected by a system of universal adult franchise…The Parsi electorate is highly literate and fully able to understand the issues involved in an election,” said the petition filed by six BPP trustees.
“There was a debate whether adult franchise is a suitable system for Parsis. But then this is the best system in a democracy and it reduces the scope to purchase votes,” said senior BPP trustee Dadi Engineer. “The existing system is complex. Moving towards adult franchise is the most logical step,” added BPP chairman Minoo Shroff.
It was way back in 1908 that the Bombay high court had framed the election scheme for the BPP–people who donate Rs 5,000 (in those days) and those elected through an electoral college would be eligible to vote for the prospective trustees. According to Sapur F Desai, author of the History of the Bombay Parsi Punchayat (1860-1960), prior to 1908, prominent members of the community were appointed as trustees till the end of their lives. Today, a trustee has a seven-year term.
Community members, in jest, point out that there may not be booth-capturing and electoral rigging here, nor thugs with guns rushing to grab ballot boxes but a BPP trustee’s election can be a vicious and acrimonious battle between supporters of rival candidates. Slander campaigns, wild accusations, name-calling and a biased community media can sometimes make or break a candidate. The use of money power is such that no sooner a candidate decides to drop out of the race midway, there are rumours that he has been “purchased” by his rival. There have been allegations that at the behest of resourceful candidates, the rivals are not allowed to campaign in certain Parsi baugs.
Three years ago, when Yazdi Desai decided to contest the elections, he found a section of the Parsi media coming down on him like a ton of bricks. “I was viciously attacked, ridiculed and intimidated. Terms like ‘limited ethics’, ‘vile group of people’, ‘depravity of minds’, ‘ancient mind in a modern body’, ‘trash’, ‘destructive and cynical nature’, ‘fruitcake’, ‘detestable group’, ‘loathsome’, ‘weirdoes and whackos’ were used against me and my supporters,” said Desai. He lost.
“An influential candidate can get away and win because he has a small, select electoral college neatly tied up,” Desai added.
Rustom Tirandaz, a former BPP trustee, who subsequently twice failed to get reelected said average Parsis have a lot of conviction, but did not have the right to vote. “Why restrict it to people who have money to donate and people who have vested interests? Some trustees in the past opposed universal franchise because they wanted to perpetuate themselves,” he said.