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Obituary: Ganesh Man Singh

Ganesh Man Singh, political activist: born Kathmandu, Nepal November 1915; Supreme Leader, Nepali Congress Party 1982-97; married (two sons, three daughters); died Kathmandu 18 September 1997.

Ganesh Man Singh was one of a rare breed amongst Nepali politicians: a man of integrity. The state funeral he was given on 19 September was the first to be accorded to a commoner and, in a symbolic gesture, the former freedom fighter's body was draped with the national flag by the prime minister, Lokendra Bahadur Chand. Ironically, Chand had been a prominent leader in the authoritarian Panchayat system that Singh had helped to overthrow.

More than anything else Singh was a rebel. Although born into a well- to-do family in impoverished Nepal, Singh was not part of the Rana oligarchy which ruled the country as its private fiefdom from the mid-19th century until 1951. In an era in which sycophancy to the Rana family was essential, Singh's rebelliousness was tantamount to treason. In 1939 he joined the Praja Parishad, Nepal's first political party, and in 1940 was sentenced to life imprisonment for anti-Rana activities.

Singh was a popular hero and his exploits were legendary. He was a small man but he was charismatic, fearless and physically very strong. In 1944 he made a daring escape from prison by scaling the walls of Bhadragol Gaol. This feat earned him the title "Iron Man". After his escape Singh fled to India, where he was schooled, like so many Nepali politicians, in the Indian nationalist movement. In 1946 he became a founding member of the Nepali National Congress. Its successor the Nepali Congress played an important role in the dismantling of Rana rule in 1951.

Power in Nepal in the 1950s was shared unequally between the monarchy, the political parties and the Ranas as the country inched towards a modern political system. Singh played a significant part in this process: in 1951 he was Minister for Industry and Commerce and later that year Minister for Food, Agriculture and Land Reform. In 1957 he led a successful civil disobedience movement to force the king to hold multi-party elections. Congress won a landslide in the 1958 general election and Singh became Minister for Works and Transport in the government of B.P. Koirala.

The Congress government did not survive for long. King Mahendra became concerned about his diminished powers and in 1960 launched a royal takeover. Political parties were banned, the king took direct control of government and Congress leaders were arrested. Singh spent the next eight years in prison and was released in 1968 only to go into exile in India yet again. He returned to Nepal in 1976 along with other Congress politicians and conducted an illegal campaign to replace the king's authoritarian Panchayat system.

By the late 1970s Singh's relationship with other senior members of the party was strained. He challenged the wisdom of the party leader, Koirala, in accepting the verdict of a national referendum in 1980, in which a slight majority gave support to the Panchayat system instead of multi- party democracy. After Koirala's death in 1982 Singh became Supreme Leader of the Nepali Congress; at the same time splits within the leadership became more profound. Singh advocated an alliance with the increasingly powerful Communist parties in order to overthrow the system while B.P. Koirala's brother Girija Prasad Koirala, the conservative general secretary of the party, insisted that Congress should keep its distance from the Left. This Singh-Koirala split was never healed.

While the Congress Party became politically isolated in the late 1980s, Singh never lost his popular touch. He realised that the party would have to reform itself and he was instrumental in forging a working relationship between Congress and Nepal's Communists. This led directly to the creation of the Jana Andolan (People's Movement) which overthrew the Panchayat system in 1990 and reintroduced a democratic system. Singh was styled the "Commander" of the Jana Andolan.

Ill-health forced Singh to the sidelines of the Congress Party in the aftermath of the democracy movement, but he remained active in national political life. In many senses he was the conscience of the Congress Party. Despite its radical rhetoric, after 1990 Congress moved from a centre- left to a centre-right party. G.P. Koirala, who became prime minister when Congress won the 1991 general election, was accused of dictatorial leanings. Singh criticised Koirala, sometimes with an element of hysteria, but always with conviction that Koirala and his policies were damaging Nepali democracy and the millions of Nepalis who lived in absolute poverty. Angered by Singh's outbursts, Koirala marginalised him to the point where Singh's supporters mutinied against the Koirala government. Congress fought the 1994 general election as a divided party and it suffered a humiliating defeat. This, Singh explained, was because the party had lost its way. His critics maintained that it was because Singh himself had undermined it.

The large number of people who went on a pilgrimage to visit Singh in his Kathmandu residence during his final years revealed that the "Iron Man" still wielded power within Congress and that he commanded respect outside it. In 1996 the party reconferred the title of Supreme Leader upon Singh after it - and party membership - had been stripped from him by a furious Koirala at the height of the feuding. In 1993 Singh was also given the United Nations U Thant Award for Human Rights.

Singh was not an intellectual heavyweight but he was forthright and unpretentious and he possessed immense energy. He was a symbol of Nepali democracy and he came from an age in which democracy meant hope to many Nepalis. Today, when Nepali democracy is wracked by corruption and opportunism, and when the system that was supposed to deliver economic prosperity is patently failing, Ganesh Man Singh's death is a saddening reminder of missed chances and the decay of political idealism.