A senior Soviet official today described Politburo member Mikhail Gorbachov as "second general secretary" of the Soviet Communist Party, a phrase that appeared to underscore his growing importance in the Kremlin ruling council.

Viktor Afanasyev, chief editor the Communist Party newspaper Pravda and member of the policymaking Central Committee, made the remark in a conversation with a group of visiting Japanese newspaper editors.

A Japanese editor who speaks fluent Russian and who was at the meeting said later that Afanasyev's remark suggested that Gorbachov, at 53 the youngest member of the Politburo, had fully consolidated his position as the party's second secretary and heir-apparent to President Konstantin Chernenko, who is the general secretary.

There is no such position as "second general secretary" in the Soviet party hierarchy. Following the death last February of Yuri Andropov and the selection of Chernenko to replace him, Gorbachov was named party secretary in charge of ideology, the traditional second-ranking position in the hierarchy.

Chernenko held the ideological slot under Andropov, who in turn was placed in that position during the last months of Leonid Brezhnev's life.

Recent published photographs of the Kremlin leadership showed Gorbachov at the right of Chernenko in the lineup -- an indication of his apparently rising position.

Afanasyev also disclosed that the Central Committee is to meet later this month to discuss agricultural issues. There have been reports that the policy-making body would meet in the fourth week of October to approve some personnel changes at the top. Afanasyev told the Japanese visitors he would not rule out the possibility of minor personnel changes.

There was speculation in Soviet circles that Gorbachov, who has been in charge of the country's agriculture for the past five years, might relinquish that position.