NEW DELHI // The undisclosed illness of India's most powerful politician has highlighted her party's dependence on her family and its refusal to delineate clear lines of leadership succession.
Sonia Gandhi, president of the Congress party, underwent surgery in the US on August 4.
The 64-year-old widow of slain prime minister Rajiv Gandhi is "likely to be away for two three weeks," said Janardhan Dwivedi, a Congress party spokesman. He added that the surgery went well.
To run the party in her absence, Ms Gandhi appointed a four-member committee comprising Mr Dwivedi; AK Anthony, the defence minister; Ahmed Patel, her long-time confidant; and her son, Rahul Gandhi.
The appointment of Mr Gandhi sparked a storm of speculation.
Reuters news agency reported that it moved him closer to power and that the appointment may signal Ms Ghandi's plan for her eventual succession.
The Delhi-based Mail Today newspaper found it "baffling" that other top Congress leaders "were not found competent to run the party".
Ms Gandhi has never announced plans for the future of the presidency but it is widely assumed her 41-year-old son is being groomed for the role. Mr Gandhi was appointed a general secretary of the party in 2007 and he heads the Indian Youth Congress.
An indication of his status is revealed on the Congress party's website. It opens to an image of Ms Gandhi, prime minister Manmohan Singh to her right and her son Rahul to her left.
The top-down structure of the party, wrote former member Deep Chand Bandhu in his 2003 book The History of Indian National Congress, vests supreme power in the person at the helm.
"The organisational posts are filled by persons appointed directly by the party president," Mr Bandhu wrote. "The decisions are made at the Congress president level. All the other party bodies become merely the supporting committees." Nominally, the presidency of the Congress party is an elected position. Its constitution allows a group of 10 or more state-level delegates to the All India Congress Committee to jointly propose a candidate for president.
But such is the sway of the Nehru-Gandhi family that its members face little internal competition in these elections.
Last year, Ms Gandhi was unopposed when elected president for the fourth straight term. Subsequently, the constitution was amended to extend the presidential term from three to five years.
The undemocratic nature of the internal structure has frequently been criticised, although there has been no grassroots effort from within the party to change it.
Chintamani Mahapatra, a political scientist at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, calls this evidence of a "personality cult".
He argues the party sticks to this arrangement out of a need for stability. He said several other Indian parties "resort to this… in order to keep the unity of the party".
But he added that the Congress party set the precedent for such internal party dynamics.
For instance, Mr Gandhi is only a year younger than his grandmother Indira Gandhi was when she became party president in 1959.
That elevation proved unpopular within the party because her father Jawaharlal Nehru was prime minister at the time.
Mr Nehru, who led the struggle for independence from British rule and became India's first prime minister, would be forced to clarify, to a newspaper: "It is well known that I did not groom her or help her in any way to become the Congress party president - but she did."
Just as her husband Rajiv Gandhi took over the Congress presidency following his mother Indira's assassination in 1984, Sonia Gandhi too became Congress president under fractious circumstances.
Following the assassination of her husband in 1991, she refused for several years to join active politics and thus extend her family's dominance over the party.
But in 1997 she joined up, forcing out the then-president Sitaram Kesri, who had completed only a third of his three-year term.
There has been just one instance since 1978, Mr Mahapatra said, when the Congress party was ruled for a significant period by a non-member of the Nehru-Gandhi clan - when P V Narasimha Rao was president in the early 1990s, after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.
"This was an important turning point.They went without deep psychological dependency on a successor from the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty," said Mr Mahapatra. "But because of the nature of the Congress party, they went back and asked her to take up the unfinished agenda her husband had started."