Yes, No, Can’t say
Parsiana, Editorial Viewpoint,
Covering a Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) trusteeship election with 23 candidates (two dropped out on September 30) vying for five seats is a challenging proposition for a semi-monthly community magazine. Aside from limited personnel resources and allowing that several candidates don’t hold public meetings, how does one introduce the contestants to the electorate in so short a span of time?
Both the Jam-e-Jamshed and the Parsi Times are replete with advertisements extolling the virtues and viewpoints of the aspirants, as is thankfully this issue of Parsiana. But advertisements only provide an insight into what the hopefuls choose to convey. At election meets voters get an opportunity to ask questions, observe the body language, gauge the ease or difficulty with which the contestant answers. Often though the pertinent questions are not raised, or asked of some candidates but not others. At different venues different concerns are voiced, so unless one attends all the meets one does not obtain a comprehensive overview.
Are the candidates liberal? Orthodox? Do they favor tenancy over leave and license, auctioning flats instead of allotting them to the disadvantaged? Do they discriminate against those who hold contrary outlooks? How would they tackle problems? Would they repeat the same errors as the last board? And so on. Many of the gatherings start late in the evening and as the speakers drone on the crowd disperses, so the question-answer session is perforce restricted.
To counter this we prepared a pointed questionnaire which we emailed to the 25 candidates. Initially we had decided on a two-tier questionnaire with the first half being subjective, essay-like and the second, objective with a yes/no/can’t say option with a 75-word per answer explanation should the party wish to give one. But with so many contestants in the fray, we felt the material would become unwieldy. Hence we restricted the questionnaire to 21 objective questions and permitted the candidates to state their general views in a 200-word essay at the end.
Candidates understandably want to appease the largest number of voters. If a particular answer may alienate one section or the other, they may deem it prudent to remain silent. There are few collective fora from which the public or journalists can grill the candidates. On so-called “religious” issues the four defense services veterans have publicly stated they would consult the high priests and scholars. The last board of trustees also followed the same disastrous approach.
Trustees cannot be subservient to the high priests or vice versa. Both are separate but equal. Both have to fight their own battles. And who is to decide whether an issue is religious, legal, moral, economic or political? If the trustees believe that the BPP is a “religious” trust, they should all resign and hand over the management to the clergy. The community may then receive much required divine assistance!
Candidates who apparently have not read or understood the BPP trust deed of 1884 constantly keep reiterating the BPP was formed to look after Doongerwadi above all else. A primary reading of the document would show that it was first created for the welfare of the community. As the BPP’s major asset was the Doongerwadi lands, the deed stressed “also” looking after property. Housing is not even one of the major objects of the trust. Perhaps that is why the present trustees have not built any housing and even left 124 to 140 flats vacant!
Of the 15 individuals who answered the objective portion of our questionnaire, 14 candidates stated the three crore rupees (US $ 4,55,578) or so spent on the priests litigation was “wasted.” The veterans, who did not answer the questionnaire terming some questions “pointed and loaded… malicious… based on talks doing the rounds,” expressed doubt about the authenticity of the three crore figure. World Alliance of Parsi Irani Zarthoshtis (WAPIZ) and BPP trustee Khojeste Mistree who initiated the ban has always questioned the three crore figure but never specified the actual amount spent. But anybody who has had the misfortune to be involved in litigation in the High Courts and the Supreme Court and engaged top notch lawyers would know that the figure is not unrealistic. Even an adjournment in the apex court costs around Rs 10,00,000.
The veterans were the only known candidates to seek and receive an endorsement from two high priests, Dasturs (Drs) Firoze Kotwal and Peshotan Mirza. Nearly all the other contestants wisely kept the clergy out, at least to date. This reflects a growing maturity. The last election was fought on the basis of the religion being in danger. Now, thanks to the present trustees, it is the community that’s in jeopardy.
Parsiana salutes the candidates who honestly stated their views and were willing to face any resultant consequences. Elections are not only about winning. They are also an opportunity to educate the public and elevate the caliber of debate and discussion. By ignoring, overlooking or shying away from providing a clear picture of their thinking, the candidates may have underestimated the public’s capacity to judge rationally and fairly.
By the time this issue of Parsiana reaches voter, they will have a week or so to grill the candidates. Avail of the opportunity. The community has the right to know what their to-be-elected representatives think and believe.