NEW DELHI (Reuters) - The illness of Sonia Gandhi, India’s most powerful political leader, may have set off a risky succession that could propel her inexperienced son Rahul to government just as the ruling Congress party battles corruption scandals and high inflation.
The appointment of the 41-year-old Rahul to a quartet that will administer political affairs for Congress as she is being treated for an undisclosed illness abroad came as a surprise to many - other more senior and experienced leaders were ignored.
Sonia Gandhi’s illness was not disclosed in Thursday’s surprise announcement, but the 64-year-old party chief may be away for weeks. Her absence may be longer if two newspaper reports, which said she had cancer, are correct.
The Congress party said on Friday she had undergone successful surgery - but Rahul’s appointment may signal his rise to power ahead of the 2014 general election even if she quickly returns to office.
“Sonia Gandhi gives Congress keys to Rahul” was the headline of the Indian Express newspaper.
Stung by opposition criticism that India could not be run by an Italian-born figure, Sonia Gandhi nominated Manmohan Singh as prime minister after her 2004 election win. Since then she has largely run the country from behind the scenes, winning re-election for her party in 2009.
Rahul will now take these reins just as a raucous parliament debates some key reforms such as a land acquisition bill and battles accusations it turned a blind eye to a huge telecoms scam that has already seen a minister quit.
Apart from Rahul, the quartet to replace Sonia Gandhi comprises Janardan Dwivedi, a general secretary of the party, Congress political secretary Ahmed Patel and Defense Minister A.K. Antony. All are close advisers to Gandhi.
Cabinet heavyweights like Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee - who usually has a hand in most government affairs and is seen by some as more powerful than the prime minister - and Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram, were ignored.
“What was baffling was that the top guns who are managing the country ... were not found competent to run the party,” the Mail Today said on its front page.
Rahul has long been seen as heir apparent to the secular and left-leaning Congress party as family scion to a dynasty that has ruled India for much of independence. Many expect him to succeed Singh, 78, before the 2014 general election.
Sonia Gandhi’s agenda has long been more populist than Singh’s - fighting for policies like food subsidies for the poor in the face of government reformists worried about their fiscal cost. All signs are that Rahul will carry on from his mother.
But until now he has been reluctant to be involved in government, preferring to organize the youth wing of his party and traveling across India to campaign for the land rights of poor tribal people and villagers.
Many saw these travels, where he would often stay the night in a remote hamlet or travel by motorcycle to villages, as a campaign to raise his profile ahead of the 2014 election.
His key test was expected to be his drive to win the 2012 elections in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous and electorally important state, before securing the credentials to hit the national stage.
Critics say he lacks the intellectual gravitas and charisma of his mother or grandmother - the assassinated Prime Minster Indira Gandhi. He has made few public statements on key national issues, whether the economy or relations with Pakistan.
He has sometimes been embarrassed by unprepared public statements - most recently when he said a mass grave was found in an opposition-ruled state after police battled villagers over land acquisition - but no evidence was found for his claim.
There are historical precedents that underscore how hard it could be for Rahul.
When Sonia’s husband Rajiv - then only 41 years old - succeeded his mother Indira after she was assassinated in 1984, his government was hamstrung by an elderly Congress guard that refused to back his reforms.
Additional reporting by C.J. Kuncheria, Editing by Ron Popeski