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Indian Communist politician ousted for sleeping in bed of cash

Samar Acharjee thought it was a hoot to lounge on $24,000, but others in the nation struggling with poverty and rife with money scandals didn't find it funny.

October 29, 2013|By Mark Magnier

NEW DELHI — If you've imagined yourself rolling in dough, you might think twice before acting on that dream, at least if you're an Indian politician.

Samar Acharjee, an official with India's Communist Party in the northeastern state of Tripura, decided a few months ago to sleep on a bed of cash as his friend recorded the golden moment on a cellphone. In the blurry footage, he's seen in a yellow shirt and blue jeans lounging on stacks of rupee notes, worth about $24,000 in all, some covering his head and chest.

Acharjee brags on camera that this is a fraction of the $110,000 he's earned from government contracts, that he's not a hypocrite like other leaders of Tripura's ruling Communists, who "depict themselves as proletariats." He tells the lens his ultimate goal is to sleep on a bigger bed, maybe six times as much.

"It's like people who have dreams of visiting the Taj Mahal or riding a horse," he said in a telephone interview. "My dream was to sleep on a bed of money. It was just a joke."

Acharjee, 43, all but forgot about it until someone this month leaked the video to local TV channels and splashed it across the Internet. Unfortunately for him, others didn't find it funny in a country gearing up for a general election, where billion-dollar political scandals are rife and envelopes of cash often "encourage" poll-bound voters.

"People are dying of hunger and this idiot is showing off his money," said Sunil Sharma, 27, a furniture mover in New Delhi. "People like me will never see that much money in our lives. This is just wrong."

Political opponents, especially members of the Congress Party, which rules nationwide and has presided over a spate of billion-dollar scandals of its own, quickly accused their Communist rivals of duplicity and immorality. They called for Acharjee's arrest and the disclosure of all "movable and immovable" assets held by Marxist leaders.

"The [state] government is corrupt from top to bottom," said Ratan Lal Nath, a Congress Party leader in Tripura. "If a local committee member has this much money, can you imagine how much the main leaders are making?"

Communist Party cadres are something of an anachronistic bunch. They still hang pictures of Josef Stalin on their walls, meet in politburos and refer to each other as comrade. They've also held the state government for 20 years and have a reputation for honesty.

So it wasn't surprising that Acharjee's "greed is good" video didn't sit well with its leadership — led by Tripura chief minister Manik Sarkar, dubbed the "poorest chief minister in India," who reportedly has just $250 in his bank account. Party leaders were already in the middle of a rectification campaign to banish "moral turpitude" in the ranks.

After a brief leadership meeting, Acharjee was chucked out for "anti-communist ideology" and "staining the image of the party." He was also cited for being both a Communist official and a contractor — he made his money building thousands of toilets under government contracts — in violation of party rules, and for having a welfare card for state-subsidized food despite his wealth.

"We are embarrassed because this kind of activity lowers our party prestige," said Bijan Dhar, state secretary for the party in Tripura. "He never informed us that he was a small-time contractor."

Cash and politics are hardly strangers in India. A minister of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party in the central state of Madhya Pradesh was caught on camera this month handing out cash at an election rally. Confronted by reporters, he explained it away as a "long-standing religious tradition."

In 2010, the then-chief minister of northern Uttar Pradesh state flaunted her birthday garland of woven bills with an estimated worth of more than $30,000. A cash-for-votes scam in 2008 caught three lawmakers showing off stacks of bills on the floor of Parliament, and it was later disclosed that they had been promised a combined $1.4 million to oppose a no-confidence measure.

As word spread across the nation of Acharjee's brash antics, some voters in religion-infused India bridled at this perceived insult to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and a favorite among Hinduism's 330 million deities.

"This man is just plain stupid; no one insults Lakshmi like that," said courier business owner Randhir Kumar Singh, 43, sporting square glasses and teeth stained red with betel nut. "Even if you drop a coin by mistake, you immediately pick it up and ask for forgiveness. These leaders steal our money, flaunt it and get away with anything."

Others couldn't help wondering what it was like to sleep on so much cash. Some said smaller well-used bills might make a softer surface. Others said it would be better to languish on far more than $24,000.

"You'd need around $160,000 [in rupees] to make a comfortable mattress," said Bipin Kumar Rai, 38, a security guard, adding that Acharjee would need "more of the public's money to really sleep well."

Asked whether he found his cash-bed comfy, Acharjee laughed, then said he didn't understand the question.

"It was just a joke with friends, but my life is a mess now," he said. "All this stupid media speculation. I'm becoming unpopular for absolutely no reason."

Tanvi Sharma in The Times' New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.

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