Rahul Gandhi, the scion of India’s Nehru-Gandhi ruling dynasty, took a step closer to power on Thursday when his ailing mother deputised leadership of the ruling Congress party to him.

Sonia Gandhi, the party’s president, identified her 40-year-old son, alongside three other senior Congress leaders, to take charge of the party while she underwent surgery in the US.

The announcement of Ms Gandhi’s three-week absence from India and her medical condition is rare. In the past, Indian media have refrained from publicising her absences and those of her children in spite of regular visits back to family in northern Italy. It has been a taboo subject because of sensitivity surrounding Italian-born Ms Gandhi’s foreign origins.

A medical emergency last year had prevented Ms Gandhi from meeting David Cameron, the UK prime minister, during his visit to New Delhi.

But Ms Gandhi’s absence from parliament in recent days at the start of the monsoon session and as it prepares to consider key legislation on food security, land acquisition and prevention of communal violence had forced the explanation of her whereabouts.

The Congress party on Thursday said it had put a team of four people in place to steer the ruling party while she was convalescing from an operation to her abdomen. But it gave few details, describing the surgery as a “private affair”.

Mr Gandhi is joined by loyalists A.K. Antony, the defence minister, Ahmed Patel, Ms Gandhi’s private secretary, and Janardhan Dwivedi, the party general secretary.

The selection is significant three years out from a parliamentary election. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s administration is battling a series of high-profile corruption scandals that have sapped public confidence, high prices and falling economic growth.

Some political analysts and Congress leaders expect the 79-year-old Mr Singh to step aside for Mr Gandhi by the 2014 elections. They say Ms Gandhi is likely to bypass other potential prime ministerial candidates such as Pranab Mukherjee, the finance minister, and Palaniappan Chidambaram, the home minister.

Others, however, say the elections in Uttar Pradesh next year, where Mr Gandhi regularly campaigns as an MP and head of the Congress youth league, is the big test for his suitability as a future national leader.

Digvijay Singh, a former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh and Congress party heavyweight, used Mr Gandhi’s birthday in June to declare that the son of slain former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was ready for the premiership. He dismissed criticism that Mr Gandhi had not held executive office in government, saying that Gandhis had pedigree enough for high office without serving in more lowly office first.

One senior Congress party member said: “The team of four that she has announced is some statement of her lack of trust in P. Chidambaram and Pranab Mukherjee. She has always seen them as government representatives.”

“These four persons picked are the party backbone.”

Ambika Soni, the information minister and close ally of the 64-year-old Ms Gandhi, said the party relied heavily on Ms Gandhi’s leadership and needed her back in New Delhi, India’s capital.

“We want her to be healthy. We want her to get well,” she said. “We want her to be back as soon as possible. We do realise how much we miss her.”

Additional reporting by Girija Shivakumar

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