Maharashtra government's strict poll code leaves RWITC high and 'dry'

Aug 19, 2015, 08:14 IST | Sharad Vyas and Hemal Ashar

A decision to enforce a code of conduct ahead of the September 8 elections at the Royal Western India Turf Club has proved to be a bitter brew to swallow for several members

A state government diktat barring candidates for two crucial committees at the Mahalaxmi Race Course from wining and dining potential voters has left a bad taste in the mouth of several members of the Royal Western India Turf Club (RWITC).

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file pic for representation
File pic for representation

The Maharashtra government's decision to impose a strict Model Code of Conduct for elections to the Managing Committee and Board of Appeals of the elite SoBo club — slated to be held on September 8 — has been challenged by the members, who have protested against it to the chief minister, who heads the home department. Their contention is that the state government has no business interfering with the workings of the RWITC.

Some members, however, have also welcomed the move, claiming that it will put an end to the use of political patronage in the elections.

file pic
Do it right: The elections must be conducted, the conduct manual states, with ‘integrity, honour and dignity, both within and outside the race course as the RWITC is a reputed body whose membership is coveted by privileged persons.’ FILE PIC FOR REPRESENTATION

Strict rules
The elections must be conducted, the conduct manual states, with "integrity, honour and dignity, both within and outside the race course as the RWITC is a reputed body whose membership is coveted by privileged persons." The stringent guidelines include the formulation of an Election Committee, constituting police officers and officials of the state home department, to monitor the elections, and terminate candidature upon violation of rules. The code of conduct is supposed to kick in 45 days prior to the elections.

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The code mandates that no person, or his/her relatives, standing for elections to the two committees shall offer free drinks, cocktail, dinner, refreshment, meal at the office or on the premises of RWITC. Also, hosting a cocktail party with the intent of inducing a vote/voter, or arranging parties or functions or giving gifts or donations during the period should be strictly considered as a violation of the code of conduct, the circular says.

Another condition is that no candidate shall exceed the expense limit of R50,000 and can only communicate with voters over emails. "This code applies to all members, contesting candidates and their relatives, and if they are found in default, (they) shall be disqualified with immediate effect," read the conduct rules.

Split wide open
Senior home department officials told mid-day that the RWITC has now written a letter to the chief minister demanding the conduct rules be waived with immediate effect. "Their contention is that the government has no business interfering with the business of the RWITC management and elections. We have asked the chief minister to take a call if there is a need to apply the code this year or not," said a senior government official.

The current RWITC committee, headed by chairman, Khushroo Dhunjibhoy has sent a letter to the government objecting to the Code of Conduct. Says Dhunjibhoy, "Yes, we have sent an objection letter because there are certain conditions in the code which are impossible to fulfil. For example, the clause of holding no parties 45 days before the elections. When the letter reached us, the period had already begun. So, certain parties were already planned and a few have been cancelled."

Dhunjibhoy's main grouse, though, is that a member of the managing committee, Vivek Jain, allegedly asked the government to impose a Code of Conduct and it was done. "So, it was done because one person raised the issue. I think the entire committee should have been consulted, and then the government could have taken a call. Instead, Jain went and lobbied the government. How can that be possible?"
Dhunjibhoy stated that they were not categorically 'against' the Code of Conduct and were happy to follow "certain aspects". "But, the government should have sat in consultation with the entire committee and then, of course, the final call would be that of the government," he said.

Jain, though, hit back, saying, "The team led by Dhunjibhoy has never been in favour of having a code of conduct, whereas the desirability of having it for any premium organisation is obvious. I was rebuffed at several committee meetings this year when I suggested it should be followed by us, even if on a voluntary basis, but it was rejected by a 5-4 majority. Hence if he says that he is not against the code, the fact is otherwise, as the minutes of the committee will establish."

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"Why the Government imposed the Code, and whether it was right, is best answered by our licensors. Thankfully, I have no business interest in Maharashtra and neither am I close to any politician or bureaucrat that makes it possible for me to influence their decisions, unlike some of the Chairman's close friends and partners who have used their political patronage unashamedly in the past for personal benefit. Is the kettle calling the pot black?" he added.

"The government imposes several conditions in the licence to race and has never consulted the Committee on it. Why is Dhunjibhoy making such a hue-and-cry over simply adopting practices that are followed by all well-known Clubs and is the norm virtually at every election in the country? The answer is quite obvious. His overriding objection is not about who lobbied for it or not, but that he, and virtually all the people on his team are most uncomfortable with this imposition on them," said Jain.

Lavish dos

The run-up to the RWITC elections is party season for the club's electorate. Thrown by different contesting candidates, all vying for a place on Western India racing's apex committee, the parties are lavish affairs. The picturesque lawns of the club are the usual venues and the club is lit up and ready to welcome its guests.

These parties are usually held in the late evenings and sometimes there is music and a smattering of entertainment as well. Expensive liquor flows freely and there is a sumptuous dinner spread. Years ago, when Vijay Mallya was contesting the election, so frequent were these parties at the RWITC that a newspaper journalist actually wrote a piece where a member spoke about his wife being overjoyed that she did not have to enter the kitchen for a week! Levity aside, candidates claim that the parties give them an opportunity to connect with the electorate and explain their agenda and goals for the club.

Yet, it is often seen that candidates keep talking away on the microphones or pointing at their presentations while invitees check out the bars and the buffet, and the gossip (usually about the club) flows as freely as the drink.

While parties may not be a direct 'inducement' to voters to vote for the host, they are definitely some kind of lure for the voter. One candidate said that there must be just 'one' party allowed for the candidates to be able to outline their manifesto to the electorate. Another said that some candidates are willing to spend crores on parties for the run-up, which is hugely unfair, because others cannot or are simply not willing to.

Whatever they are dressed up as — RWITC parties, get-togethers, election platforms where candidates get to connect with their voters and present their manifestos — one thing is clear: it is the voters who go away party-hearty.

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