In a blow to the Congress before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, senior OBC leader Kunwarji Bavaliya today quit the party and joined, as cabinet minister, the Vijay Rupani-led BJP government in Gujarat.
Mr Bavaliya, who accused Congress president Rahul Gandhi of "playing casteist politics in the party", was administered the oath of office by Governor O P Kohli.
In the fast-paced development over a few hours, Mr Bavaliya resigned from the Congress and as an MLA, drove to the BJP office where he was inducted in the party, and took oath as a minister at the Raj Bhavan in Gandhinagar.
In an email to Mr Gandhi informing about the resignation, Mr Bavaliya expressed displeasure about the way the party was functioning in the state, Congress sources said.
Talking to reporters, he alleged that Mr Gandhi was encouraging casteist politics inside the party organisation.
"The way Rahul-ji is playing casteist politics, I realised I will not be able to succeed in working in the Congress any more.
"I was not getting a chance to work the way I wanted to in the Congress due to constant infighting. This government is moving ahead with a mission, and I will be able to succeed in fulfilling the expectations of people, rural populace, the poor and farmers," he said.
Praising Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he said, "Even in the past, the then chief minister and now prime minister, Narendrabhai was very closely associated with me. He used to tell me that we need people like you."
"I have been taking note of the way our prime minister has been working. I have supported the direction he has given to the country's economy," Bavaliya said.
"The team of Narendrabhai and Amitbhai (BJP president Amit Shah) is taking the country on the path of progress," he said.
State BJP chief Jitu Vaghani said, "The hands of the BJP and Narendrabhai and Amitbhai will be strengthened by this move, and the party will take all communities, including OBCs, together for the development of the country."
With the entry of Mr Bavaliya who hails from Saurashtra, the BJP is hoping to attract voters from his Koli community, which has a sizable presence in the region.
The BJP fared badly in Saurashtra in the last year's assembly polls as the Patidar community deserted it following the quota agitation led by Hardik Patel.
The Koli community is present in large numbers in at least 20 assembly constituencies in Saurashtra, which sends four MPs to the Lok Sabha.
In the 2017 state elections, the Congress won 30 out of 54 seats in Saurashtra, 14 more than in 2012. The BJP's tally fell from 35 in 2012 to 23.
Mr Bavaliya, a five-time MLA from Jasdan, represented Rajkot in the Lok Sabha during 2009-2014. He had also been the working president of state Congress twice.
State Congress chief Amit Chavda called Bavaliya's decision "opportunistic." "He will have to give answer to Congress voters who elected him repeatedly for so many years," Mr Chavda said.
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