Rustom Hormazdiyar faces the prospect of an exceptionally onerous October. As Election President for the first-ever BPP ballot by Universal Adult Franchise, he is overseeing voting, over three consecutive weekends, by the Parsi community across the city, and the eventual declaration of results by the twenty-seventh of this month.
Several issues have already arisen: his alleged partisan stance, chaos on the first day, a few pre-marked ballot papers, and no code of conduct, in the absence of which campaigning continues almost all the way into the ballot booths, smear attacks against candidates persist, and big money continues to be splashed to impress and entice voters.
In a bid to ensure that fairness and transparency is maintained throughout the election process, Rustom Hormazidiyar, although self-effacing and a confessed “introvert”, agreed to be interviewed. It must be conceded that despite the reservations of some candidates, there would be few takers for his job!
You are in the saddle again. Tell us a bit about past BPP elections…
The first time I was invited to preside over the BPP elections was in 1981. Back then, there was a movement in the Parsi community to reform electoral practices. Previously, the Trustees were elected by the ‘Sau nu mandal’ – or a group of 100 people, which was later expanded into an Electoral College.
Even in 1981 there were two rival groups, one of which was the Committee of Electoral Reforms (CER) – a radical group wanting reform within the community. At the time, B.K. Boman-Behram, the then Chairman of the BPP, appointed me Election President – he was staunchly orthodox in his views.
Jamshed Kanga and others in the CER questioned my appointment. They thought I would be prejudiced against them because Boman-Behram had appointed me, and since he was orthodox I would be orthodox too (nothing is further from the truth – I am completely modern in my views!).
That year Boman-Behram became Mayor of Bombay and the elections were very vexing – the CER made his life miserable. He got a heart attack. Caring little, the CER continued to harass him. There was an erroneous perception in the community that he was corrupt and took money for allotting flats. But Boman-Behram was a man of sterling integrity. Lady Cowasji Jehangir, who was the BPP Chairman before him, said at the felicitation held in his honour at Cusrow Baug that she firmly believed his middle name was integrity – such was her faith in him. He was venerated by all other communities except Parsis.
Why the persistent allegation that you are pro-AFP in this election?
I’ve got friends in the AFP, some of who were very anti Boman-Behram in the 1981 elections and accused me of being his man. But I am nobody’s man. I am the man picked for preserving the election’s sanctity, which has to be maintained at any cost. Boman-Behram knew I was impartial and would not take anybody’s side. Even this time when I was appointed, a lot of efforts were made to malign me, but five of the six Trustees stood by me.
Since 1981, every time there has been a BPP election, they have invited me as the Election President (except in 1993, when I was abroad). I am totally independent and refuse to take sides. I have never voted in any election, because I did not belong to the Electoral College. This June, I donated Rs. 25,000 to become a Donor Member under the new scheme, but I have no intention of voting for anybody. When they asked me what my donation was for I said jocularly: “For a crematorium at Doongerwadi!”
I have contributed to the Doongerwadi Fund because it costs a lot to consign a body at the Doongerwadi, and the fund is always in a deficit. We Parsis have become too dependent on the BPP for everything from birth to death, and expect it to subsidise our lives, while many of its Trust suffer deficits. So I thought of contributing to the Doongerwadi trust. Personally, though, I have no problems with a crematorium coming up at Doongerwadi.
How will you ensure neutral supervision of the elections in these trying times?
You cannot convincingly prove to anybody that you are honest. People jump to conclusions without any evidence. If I was supposedly partial to Boman-Behram (who was a staunch orthodox) in 1981, how can I be partial to the AFP (who are just the opposite) today? Lack of understanding and often no attempt at understanding is the root of the trouble in our community.
In 1981 I changed the counting procedure. Both Chairman Boman-Behram and CEO Anklesaria said the CER would pounce on me. I said, let them. I go by the People’s Representation Act 1951 on all points where the BPP Act is silent. A private election scheme cannot have all points covered in its Act.
Tampered ballot papers have been surfacing?
I will explain exactly what happened at Khareghat Colony (where the allegation of tampered ballot papers arose), when all 32 candidates are before me at the time of counting the ballots. We are an alarmist community. Let your conscience be the final arbiter, is what I believe in. Forget about anybody’s opinion – it does not matter to me. I am now 81-years-old, how much longer will I live? What good will tinkering with the election process do to me?
What about the safety of the ballot boxes?
They are secure in a ‘strong room’ and we have totally ensured their safety. They are sealed in the presence of the candidates, who will also be present at the time of breaking the seal open.
What process is in place to count the votes fairly and squarely?
We will conduct the entire exercise at Khareghat Colony. All the candidates will be present. People are fearing the worst and attributing motives to everybody. Even a saint would have been doubted in these circumstances. What is at stake? Seven Trustees you can get rid of seven years later – or even take to court, in the interim, if you are unhappy with their functioning. I am fed up with all this mud-slinging.
You’re obviously upset over the current allegations. But by your own admission you were attacked in 1981 also…
My conscience is clear, although I am considered to be a very eccentric Parsi! But I believe no Election President can be partisan – or he must be dropped like a hot potato. I have a track record of 28 years; nobody can match it. Prior to my retirement, I was General Manager and Company Secretary with Ahura Chemicals for 22 years. People know what I am about. But nobody is perfect, and neither am I. I have stopped expecting people to change, because I cannot change myself.
Who are the key people in your team?
I have two scrutineers, who remain in the presence of the ballot boxes all along. They guide the voters. After the election process they will help to pick out ballot papers, which are invalid. This should be done prior to the counting process, but this will be resented by some candidates. We can’t appease every one. We will follow certain practices. The computerised results, as they are counted vote by vote, will be watched by the candidates. It will take some days to count thousand of votes. Results will be declared by October 27.
How come there is no code of conduct?
Do you have to be told to behave honestly? The unfortunate part is the BPP never envisioned somebody would come out and splash such big money. Ordinarily, this is called an election malpractice. But why are so-called educated Parsis falling for it? Are they so hungry that they require a free dinner? There is an umbilical connection between Parsis and food! Yes, practises have to be framed for electioneering.
The first day fiasco upset many…
At Khareghat Colony we had restraints of space and we were slightly delayed, because of which there was a huge queue. I am sorry about that. This never happens generally. All arrangements are handled by the BPP – I’ve nothing to do with them and am not supposed to organise them. But the next day at Rustom Baug was very smooth.