NEW DELHI: The decision by an ailing Sonia Gandhi to ask her son Rahul 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 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 premier-in-waiting, Rahul, 41, has hitherto shunned high-profile cabinet berths in favour of grassroots activism and building up the party's youth wing.
But his nomination to the temporary panel, despite not even being in the country, coupled with uncertainty over the seriousness of Sonia'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 sceptre must be handed to the son," political analyst Inder Malhotra told AFP. "This regency could well be the beginning of transition."
Rahul steps into the fray as the Congress party battles its gravest crisis since taking power in 2004 after a string of corruption scandals and soaring inflation.
While 78-year-old Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is formally in charge of the government, Sonia is widely seen as India's most powerful politician who calls the shots from her power-broking position as party president.
She is expected to be absent for at least two or three weeks while recovering from surgery in the United States.
Rahul has been by his mother's bedside in hospital and Congress officials have declined to speculate when he will return to India.
Aside from Rahul, the temporary leadership panel comprises Defence Minister A.K. Antony, Sonia's private secretary Ahmed Patel and top party official Janardan Dwivedi.
Eyebrows were raised at the non-inclusion of potential rivals for the premier's job, such as Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee.
Congress officials said many party heavyweights would be too busy attending a crucial parliamentary session that began on Monday.
Sonia's appointment of Rahul "confirms him as the first among equals in Congress. It instills a sense of continuation," Rasheed Kidwai, a biographer of Sonia, told AFP.
Since independence in 1947, power in Congress has passed from Rahul Gandhi's great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first premier, 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," said an Indian Express newspaper headline 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 lacklustre.
Rahul is not a natural orator like his younger sister Priyanka, who has opted to raise her children and keep out of the political frame.
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.
"But Rahul Gandhi is clearly the most important in the party after Sonia, that is why he was appointed. There is a symbolism in this appointment," said political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan.
Prime Minister Singh, a Gandhi loyalist accused by the opposition of shutting his eyes to massive corruption, is often seen as keeping the premier's seat warm for Rahul.
Critics decry the need for continuation of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty, seeing it as a sign of political immaturity that undermines India's superpower aspirations.
Rahul has never declared outright he wants to lead India and has said becoming prime minister is not the only "job" in the world.
But Congress billboards drill home the message of succession, showing the elderly Singh, beaming mother Sonia and in front Rahul, poised to take the reins.