The decision by an ailing Indian National Congress party chairperson Sonia Gandhi to ask her son Rahul Gandhi to help steer India’s ruling party in her absence could fast-track his long-anticipated succession to power, analysts say.
The scion of India’s Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty was named on Thursday to a four-member panel tasked with running the party’s daily affairs while his mother recovers from surgery for an undisclosed medical condition.
Although long billed as a prime minister-in-waiting, Rahul Gandhi, 41, has hitherto shunned high-profile Cabinet berths in favor of grassroots activism and building up the party’s youth wing.
However, his nomination to the temporary panel — despite not even being in the country — coupled with uncertainty over the seriousness of his mother’s condition has led many to believe his rise to the top has now begun in earnest.
“The whole plan of Sonia has always been that the scepter must be handed to the son,” political analyst Inder Malhotra said. “This regency could well be the beginning of transition.”
While 78-year-old Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is formally in charge of the government, Sonia Gandhi is widely seen as India’s most powerful politician, who calls the shots from her power-broking position as party leader.
Her appointment of Rahul “confirms him as the first among equals in Congress. It instills a sense of continuation,” said Rasheed Kidwai, a biographer of Sonia Gandhi.
Since independence in 1947, power in Congress has passed from Rahul Gandhi’s great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, to his grandmother Indira Gandhi, who was slain by Sikh bodyguards, and in tragedy-studded succession to his father, Rajiv, who was blown up by a Tamil suicide bomber.
Leadership now rests with Rajiv’s Italian-born widow and many Congress backers cannot imagine the party without a Gandhi at the helm.
“Sonia Gandhi gives Congress keys to Rahul,” an Indian Express newspaper headline said after the panel was announced.
Sonia has carefully managed her son’s career, giving him time to carry out his aim of learning politics “brick by brick,” but the track record of the partly US-educated politician has been lackluster.
He has rarely spoken in parliament debates and never dealt with such thorny issues as Pakistan or the economy, preferring to embrace populist causes including farmers’ land rights.
Singh, a Gandhi loyalist accused by the opposition of shutting his eyes to massive corruption, is often seen as keeping the prime minister’s seat warm for Rahul Gandhi.
Rahul Gandhi has never declared outright he wants to lead India and has said becoming prime minister is not the only “job” in the world.
However, Congress billboards drill home the message of succession, showing the elderly Singh, beaming mother Sonia and in front, Rahul — poised to take the reins.