August 15 holds special significance in former chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta's life. On this day he had signed the famous Assam Accord with Rajiv Gandhi in 1985 amidst high hopes. The accord and his subsequent meteoric rise to power had elevated Mahanta almost to a demi-god status in the eyes of the people in Assam. Sixteen years later, August 15 has turned out to be the most difficult day in his life. This was the day Sadin—a widely circulated language weekly tabloid—dropped a bombshell in the guise of a
tell-it-all interview with Sanghamitra Bharali, an assistant language officer in the Assam assembly secretariat, who claimed that she had married Mahanta in a secret ceremony in Mumbai.
Although the former chief minister flatly denied the claim, Sanghamitra's 'confession' triggered a massive personal as well as political crisis for Mahanta who has been married to Jayashree, a former MP herself, for the past 13 years. The two of them have three children. More than a week after Sanghamitra went to town about her 'marriage', the reverberations can still be felt in the political establishment in Assam.
While the Asom Gana Parishad (agp) has officially stood by Mahanta in his hour of crisis, dissenting voices have started emerging from within the party. Mahanta has in fact temporarily relinquished his post as party president for two months in the wake of the scandal. A move is on now to secure en masse resignations of all executive members, including Mahanta, before the crucial September 6 meeting of the party's general council to enable the election of a new set of office-bearers in an effort to refurbish the agp's image. For the record, the agp is saying that the Congress is behind the "conspiracy". Talking to Outlook, Mahanta said a newly-elected Congress mla from Guwahati and another minister are behind Sanghamitra's attempts to blackmail him.
Minister of state for home Pradyut Bordoloi, however, says that the Congress government has studiously kept away from the Mahanta affair. "If we wanted, we could have brought out the whole affair two months ago when Sanghamitra's husband had sought chief minister Tarun Gogoi's help in filing an fir against Mahanta on charges of bigamy but the CM refused to be dragged into a personal matter," Bordoloi says.
Mahanta may be on a strong wicket in denying a marriage with Sanghamitra owing to several discrepancies in her description of the circumstances under which she is supposed to have married him. What Mahanta cannot and has not denied is the fact that Sanghamitra has been very much part of his inner circle for over a year now. She was seen in close proximity to Mahanta at various functions in Assam. Officials who have worked with Mahanta now say that Sanghamitra had used this closeness to Mahanta to wangle several favours from the government. Mahanta had apparently also approved her appointment as member of the once-prestigious Assam Public Service Commission (apsc) until Governor S.K. Sinha put his foot down and returned the file without approving her appointment.
Former classmates who have studied with Sanghamitra in Guwahati's Cotton College describe her as a "butterfly in search of the nectar of power". Before claiming a nearness to Mahanta, the lady has been known to be close to several politicians and people in high positions. "She has always been attracted to influential people in power," a former classmate tells Outlook.
Although she married Monideep Das, a veterinary doctor, and has a 12-year old son from that marriage, Sanghamitra has been living separately for the past six months. An aspiring Hindustani classical singer, Sanghamitra claimed that she married Mahanta in a Mumbai temple on March 11 this year. Mahanta, who issued a one-page denial immediately after Sanghamitra gave an explosive interview to Sadin, said he had never ever visited any temple in Mumbai. Sanghamitra, however, has even produced a friend in Mumbai, one Jayashree Thakkar, to say that she (Thakkar) was witness to the 'marriage' and that Mahanta had also gifted Sanghamitra a flat in Andheri West.
The lady goes on to claim that after their 'secret' marriage, Mahanta took her to his suite at the Oberoi in Mumbai around 2 am, registering her as a 'guest'. The two stayed together at the hotel for two nights. She describes Mahanta as a "fantastic lover" and has even stated that she had lived in Mahanta's official residence in Delhi several times when Jayashree Goswami Mahanta, the former CM's wife (and then Rajya Sabha member), was not around.
"I do not want to issue a rejoinder to the various baseless news items being published every day. I have already clarified my position on the very first day itself. I have a happy married life with three children and there has not been a single instance when anybody has spoken anything against my moral character," says Mahanta.
But Sanghamitra refuses to believe him. "I am surprised that he is shying away from the truth. I cannot believe that a god-fearing person like him is now denying the fact that he had married me in the typical Hindu way by chanting Vedic mantras before the fire," she says.
Mahanta, a great believer in astrology and numerology, never makes a major decision without consulting his astrologer. He even wears several rings on his fingers to ward off adversities. Yet the stars seem to have remained unappeased, going by the setbacks that he and his party have suffered in the past few months. First the agp lost power in the May assembly polls. Then his former cabinet colleague, Rajendra Mushahary, was jailed for raping a minor. Another former minister, Jatin Mali, was accused of raping a domestic help and now Mahanta is in the dock on charges of bigamy.
Interestingly, though the Mahanta 'affair' has aroused much titter, there are few who actually believe that the marriage did take place. Says veteran journalist Kirtinath Hazarika, former editor of Dainik Asom: "It is still at the allegation stage. While the woman has been claiming she had married Mahanta, the former chief minister has denied it. I do not want to comment on the issue at this stage. But it remains a fact that though there is a general tendency to believe that Mahanta had some attraction towards her, the news about his marrying her is unbelievable."
Indeed rumour mills in Guwahati have been rife with the news of the other woman in Mahanta's life. Sanghamitra was seen as using Mahanta to achieve her own ends. Says former chief minister Golap Borbora: "I have nothing personal against Mahanta. But nor do I have any sympathy for the lady who has claimed Mahanta had married her. There is a category of people in today's society who want to climb up by leaning or clinging on to powerful politicians. This lady belongs to that category."
Mahanta's father, Debakanta Mahanta, too refuses to believe the story of his son's second marriage. "I know my son. He cannot do such a thing," he said, but not before adding that Mahanta's wife Jayashree should be blamed for his downfall. "It began the day his wife entered politics," says the septuagenarian senior Mahanta, a former teacher.Jayashree, a lecturer in the prestigious Cotton College before she joined politics four years ago, was also elected unopposed to the Rajya Sabha two years ago. Her entry into politics has had an adverse effect on the party, especially with stalwarts like Bhrigu Phukan, Atul Bora and Pulakesh Barua accusing Mahanta of introducing family politics in the agp.
This, however, is a whole new family game. And Mahanta will need all the luck that his stars and the stones on his fingers can bring to tide over this crisis.