The Congress party anointed Rahul Gandhi as its vice-president on Saturday, bringing the fifth-generation member of India's most famous family firmly into the political line of fire.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh greets Rahul Gandhi after he was appointed as vice president of the Congress party in Jaipur. PTI Photo
The move, announced at the party's conclave here, makes Rahul the presumptive prime ministerial candidate and sets up a possible showdown in 2014 with Narendra Modi if the BJP relents to pressure from its cadres and moves the Gujarat CM to Delhi.
For now, the Congress stopped short of naming Rahul the candidate for the country's top job, perhaps out of consideration for its sitting octogenarian PM Manmohan Singh.
"What role Rahul would assume for the 2014 elections would be decided later," general secretary Janardan Dwivedi, who announced the decision by the Congress Working Committee, told reporters.
"With his appointment, Shri Rahul Gandhi has been elevated to No 2 in the Congress. And I am sure he will strengthen the party."
PM Manmohan Singh greets Rahul Gandhi after he was appointed VP. PTI
If the Congress wins power in 2014, Rahul, who is a youthful 42, may find it easier to become PM than to operate as the power behind a throne occupied by any assertive alternative.
His mother, Sonia, declined the premiership after the party won in 2004, and is seen as the most powerful person in the current administration.
"I have learnt from senior leaders. Making use of those, I will try to live up to the new challenge," the often reticent Gandhi scion said in his brief acceptance speech at the CWC.
The elevation marks the coming of age of a man often seen as a reluctant politician who preferred to remain in the background working on the youth and student wings of the party and campaigning for tribals, farmers and the rural poor.
The move to elevate Rahul, who is currently one of the party's general secretaries, is also in line with the Congress's move to focus on the youth and the middle class, and immediately enthused party workers.
Youth Congress and National Students' Union of India (NSUI) activists who had gathered outside the venue - Birla auditorium - in anticipation of the "big news" erupted in cheers once it came.
Congress supporters celebrate in New Delhi. HT
When Sonia Gandhi went abroad for treatment in August 2011, Rahul was one of the four leaders who oversaw the functioning of the party during her absence.
As recently as November last year, he was given the charge of the party's coordination committee for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
The post of vice-president normally does not exist in the Congress and has been created especially for Rahul to emphasise the hierarchy.
Technically, he has so far been one of the several general secretaries though his de facto number two position has never been in doubt.
In years gone by, Jitendra Prasada was vice-president to Sitaram Kesari, Arjun Singh was deputy to Rajiv Gandhi, and Kamalapati Tripathi was working president under Indira Gandhi.
The suggestion to formally assume the number two position was placed before Rahul at least a year ago, but he had been weighing the pros and cons of it.
At the Jaipur conclave of the party, the focus sharply fell on him as leader after leader clamoured that he accept the proposal.
Congress sources said many chief ministers including Prithviraj Chavan of Maharashtra, Vijay Bahuguna of Uttarakhand, Ashok Gehlot of Rajasthan and Bhupinder Singh Hooda of Haryana and senior leaders such as Jagmeet Singh Brar and Ajit Jogi had repeatedly told the party leadership that Rahul should get a bigger role now.
POLL: Will Rahul Gandhi's elevation improve Cong' chances in 2014 election?