India's reluctant prince, Rahul Gandhi, takes break from politics

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Rahul Gandhi, a leader of India's Congress party, is taking a leave of absence from parliament to focus on party work, an official said, setting off speculation of a long-awaited change in the party to revive its fortunes.

Gandhi, the presumed fourth-generation heir of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, has led the party to a series of electoral defeats since it was handed its worst drubbing in a national election last year at the hands of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Gandhi, 44, wanted time to think, said a Congress official, who had served as a minister in the previous government. "Rahul Gandhi wants to take a short break. He wants to assess his role and the party's future," said the senior party official, who declined to be identified.

Neither Gandhi nor any officials in his office were immediately available for comment. His mother, Sonia Gandhi, leader of Congress, told a television news channel that her son was on leave for a few days, the channel said in a Twitter post.

Rahul Gandhi had promised dramatic change after defeat in a 2014 general election but he did not follow up on the vow.

The party went on to suffer more losses including a wipe-out in an election to the Delhi assembly in which a two-year-old anti-corruption party took power.

Some leaders have suggested that Gandhi step out of the shadows and formally take charge of the Congress from his mother.

Others have privately expressed concern that he remains aloof from the party ranks.

His decision to step back comes as the opposition is trying to block government efforts to ease land acquisition laws, the centre piece of its reform effort to speed an economic recovery.

The Congress official said the party would have to soldier on in parliament without the scion of the once-powerful political dynasty. "His absence will not hamper the party's work. We will stand up against the objectionable bills tabled by the government,"the official said.

Some party supporters have called for his sister, Priyanka Gandhi, to take a more prominent role in politics but there has been no sign of her doing so.

Their father, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991 and their grandmother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was assassinated in 1984.