By naming her son and general secretary Rahul Gandhi as one of four people who will oversee the Congress while she is away from India, party president Sonia Gandhi has provided the clearest sign of his growing clout in the country's oldest political outfit.
In a statement issued from an unnamed country where she is being medically treated, Sonia Gandhi nominated Rahul Gandhi and three long-time loyalists -- Defence Minister A.K. Antony, her political secretary Ahmed Patel and another general secretary Janardhan Dwivedi.
It immediately struck political pundits and Congress watchers that she had excluded most of the old guard.
The Sonia decision means that Rahul, 40, widely seen within and outside the party as a possible future Congress prime minister, will attend the party's core committee meetings and those of United Progressive Alliance leaders, party sources told IANS.
Sonia Gandhi will be abroad for two to three weeks, the longest duration that she would be away from India since the Congress came to power in 2004 and won another election in 2009.
Party sources said she was undergoing treatment in the US for an abdomen related illness.
"Rahul's selection should not be a surprise to anyone," political analyst N. Bhaskar Rao told IANS, adding his importance was known for years -- at least since he became a general secretary.
A Congress leader who did not want to be identified underlined that the younger Gandhi was already "discharging important responsibilities in the party”.
In recent years, Rahul Gandhi, who was elected to the Lok Sabha for the first time two years ago, has played a key role in election campaigns, and in rejuvenating the Youth Congress and the party's student wing.
Some in the Congress said no deep meaning should be read in the exclusion from the four-member group of Finance Minister and veteran Congressman Pranab Mukherjee or other high-profile leaders like Digvijay Singh.
"They are all in the government, core committee and other forums. Other than Antony the other three in the group are full-time party functionaries and fully suited to handle party affairs,” one leader explained.
K. Sreekumar, another political analyst, said the "rise of Rahul was a natural choice for Sonia.
"For decades, the Congress has functioned as a mix of dynasty (Nehru-Gandhi family) and democracy, earning brickbats from critics.
"But it has to be admitted that many of these dynastic leaders, including Rahul, have become popular with party workers and the public."
Sreekumar said the coming weeks will pose a major challenge for Rahul Gandhi.
"The country will watch how he handles burning issues like Anna Hazare's threatened fast and developments in parliament."
Predictably, Rahul's appointment sparked criticism from the opposition.
"What other announcement could we expect from Sonia Gandhi?" asked Javed Raza, general secretary of the Janata Dal-United. "For years the party has been handled as a private property of the Nehru family."