In a major blow to the Congress in Gujarat, prominent OBC leader Alpesh Thakor and his close aide Dhavalsinh Zala, both former party MLAs, joined the Bharatiya Janata Party on Thursday.
Thakor and Zala, along with hundreds of supporters, joined the ruling party at a function held in its headquarters in Gandhinagar in the presence of Gujarat BJP president Jitu Vaghani.
Thakor, who heads community outfit 'Kshatriya Thakor Sena', and Zala had resigned as MLAs on July 5, apparently after voting against Congress candidates in the Rajya Sabha bypolls.
The 43-year-old Thakor had joined the Congress at a function in the presence of party leader Rahul Gandhi just ahead of the December 2017 assembly polls.
The opposition party later fielded the OBC leader from the Radhanpur assembly seat in Patan district from where he emerged victorious.
Zala, a close associate of Thakor, was the MLA from Bayad in Arvalli district.
Though speculation was rife that he would be made a minister, Thakor, after joining the BJP, claimed his only intention behind switching sides was to serve the poor and needy people of his community, which according to him, was not possible while being in the main opposition party.
"Me and my people received nothing but betrayal and humiliation in the Congress. I was unable to do anything for my community despite being an MLA of that party.
"Instead of doing something for the people, Congress leaders used to focus only on personal gains. I realised that to serve the people in a better way, I have to be with the ruling fold," Thakor told reporters.
He alleged a top Congress leader used to tell partymen to 'incite' tribal people against the Centre's ambitious 'Bharatmala' project of building highways.
"Unlike the Congress, the BJP is a disciplined and cadre-based party with nationalism at its core. People trust the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
"People have confidence that the country would scale new heights under his leadership. I have joined the BJP as a worker to serve my people in a better way," said Thakor.
Claiming injustice to his community, Thakor had resigned from all party posts, including as All India Congress Committee secretary in-charge of Bihar, in April just before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls in the state, where the BJP won all the 26 parliamentary seats for a second time in a row.
Upset over his occasional outbursts against the party, Congress leadership had approached the assembly Speaker to get him disqualified as an MLA for engaging in 'anti-party' activities.
Thakor and Zala had resigned as MLAs immediately after voting in the July 5 bypolls to two Rajya Sabha seats.
The Congress had alleged the two had voted in favour of BJP candidates.
Vaghani, after welcoming Thakor and Zala in the party, said the former was a self-made leader who wants to work for betterment of OBC communities of the state.
"I welcome both of them in the party. I am confident they would work hard for the uplift of OBC communities. Our aim is to make the people of these communities prosperous. Even our PM comes from an OBC community," said Vaghani.
Gujarat Congress leaders slammed Thakor for switching sides, saying he is using his community's name for political gains.
"Thakor betrayed his community by joining the BJP. He used to say that his only goal was to eliminate social evils from the Thakor community and uplift them.
"Now, he has put aside all these causes and joined the ruling party to satisfy his ambitions. He has joined the BJP for his own political gains.
"The Thakor community has understood his game and will never support him," said senior Congress MLA Baldevji Thakor.
During the 2017 assembly poll campaign, Thakor had shared the dais with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi on multiple occasions.
Thakor had emerged as a prominent OBC leader after the 2015 Patidar quota agitation led by Hardik Patel.
He mobilised members of his OBC community under the banner of Thakor Sena and vehemently opposed the demand to include Patels in the list of Other Backward Classes.
With the resignation of Thakor and Zala, the Congress's strength in the 182-member assembly has come down to 69.
The Congress, out of power in Gujarat for more than two decades, had won 77 assembly seats in 2017.