It had been very well-kept secret by the Congress Party, only partly tumbling into public view today.
According to reports, Congress President Sonia Gandhi, 64, has undergone major abdominal surgery in the United States, and will be away for two to three weeks. During this time, a so-called group of four, including her son Rahul, will run party affairs.
This may well be a sign of things to come. Sonia has been Congress president for almost 12 years now, making her the longest-serving party president since her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, was at the helm. The announcement that Rahul is in the group of four is likely the first concrete step towards his formal taking over of the party and the government in the near future. Other members of the group are Defence Minister A.K. Antony, Congress chief spokesperson Janardhan Dwivedi and Sonia Gandhi’s Political Secretary Ahmed Patel.
Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Rajiv Shulka said it was Sonia herself who had taken the decision to appoint Rahul in the four-member panel, adding: ‘Rahul is the party general secretary and anyway has been taking key decisions. We would like him to take more responsibilities. It is between the mother and son.’
The Congress Party was tight-lipped about the exact nature of Sonia’s condition, although there has been some speculation that she is suffering from abdominal cancer. For his part, Dwivedi delivered a terse statement about Sonia’s condition, saying: ‘Sonia Gandhi has been recently diagnosed with a medical condition that requires surgery. On advice from her doctors, she has travelled abroad and is likely to be away for two to three weeks. We have information that the surgery was successful and her condition is satisfactory.’
The main opposition party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) promptly made the right noises and wished her a speedy recovery even as special religious ceremonies and prayer meetings are being observed nationwide for Sonia’s good health. The Congress Party’s bête noire Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi was among the first to wish Sonia luck, writing on Twitter: ‘Have come to know through media about Mrs Sonia Gandhi's surgery. I pray for her speedy recovery & good health.’ BJP senior leader Sushma Swaraj , head of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, also wished Sonia a quick recovery.
Sonia’s indisposition is bound to have a major impact on the Congress Party and even Indian politics more broadly. Whatever she may have had in mind for her son’s future, she may now have to bring her decision forward. Interestingly, Indian President Pratibha Patil also has less than a year’s tenure left. Political circles are buzzing with speculation that if Rahul were to be made prime minister by 2012, current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would be the ideal candidate for the president’s job.