In a jolt to the Congress in Gujarat, three party MLAs considered close to Shankarsinh Vaghela on Thursday quit and joined the BJP, which quickly declared one of them its candidate for next month's Rajya Sabha polls against Congress veteran Ahmed Patel.
The resignation of Balwantsinh Rajput, the party's chief whip in the Assembly, Tejashreeben Patel and Prahlad Patel reduced the Congress's tally to 54 in the 182-seat assembly.
Rajput, Tejashreeben Patel and Prahlad Patel resigned from the House and also all party posts. They later drove to the BJP office in Gandhinagar and joined the saffron party in the presence of its president Amit Shah.
Shah and Union minister Smriti Irani are the other two BJP candidates for the August 8 RS elections.
Of the total 11 Rajya Sabha members from the state, the term of three -- Irani and Dilipbhai Pandya (both BJP) and Ahmed Patel - is ending on August 18.
The Congress has re-nominated Ahmed Patel, political secretary to party president Sonia Gandhi. The 67-year-old Congressman filed his nomination papers yesterday.
Rajput represented Siddhapur seat in Patan district, while Tejashreeben Patel was elected from Viramgam in Ahmedabad district. Prahlad Patel was elected from Vijapur in Mehasana district.
Earlier in the day, they submitted their resignation letters to Assembly Speaker Ramanlal Vora at Gandhinagar.
"Balwantsinh Rajput, Tejashreeben Patel and Prahlad Patel have given their resignation as sitting MLAs of their respective seats. They now cease to be the members the Legislative Assembly," Vora told PTI.
The trio cannot vote in the Rajya Sabha polls now, he said.
The development came on the day when Shah was in Gandhinagar to attend a meeting of party MLAs called to chalk out the strategy for the Rajya Sabha polls.
"I welcome all three MLAs into the BJP fold. I called Rajput and invited him to join the party upon learning that he, along with two other MLAs, has resigned. I welcome all of them into the BJP," Gujarat BJP chief Jitu Vaghani told reporters.
Within hours of Rajput's induction, the BJP, seeking to queer the pitch for Ahmed Patel, fielded Rajput as its third candidate from Gujarat, hoping to cut into the votes of the Congress nominee.
Rajput's son is the husband of Vaghela's granddaughter. The latest setback for the Congress comes almost a week after Vaghela left the party and also resigned as the Leader of Opposition. However, he continues to be an MLA.
The Congress nominee can sail through if he musters the support of 47 MLAs and the party is able to further desertions from its legislative arm. Congress, the main opposition party in the Gujarat Assembly, also has the support of two NCP legislators and the lone JD(U) MLA.
The presidential election had seen cross-voting by Congress MLAs as the joint opposition candidate Meira Kumar could garner votes of only 49 legislators against the party's then strength of 57 in the Assembly.
Talking to media after joining the BJP, Rajput blamed the Congress leadership for his decision to exit.
"Though I worked with dedication for the Congress over the last 35 years, I was very upset because of infighting and groupism in the party. Fingers were also raised at me over my integrity owing to my relation with Vaghela. I realised if I have to work for development, I have to leave the Congress," said Rajput.
Tejashreeben Patel also slammed the Congress, saying the party appears clueless about how to prepare and win the upcoming assembly polls in Gujarat.
Instead of focusing on winning the upcoming Assembly polls, Congress leaders were day-dreaming about getting important posts. It was very difficult for me to be in that party, she said.
Prahlad Patel said he has joined the ruling BJP in the interest of his constituents.
He said BJP ministers always reacted positively to the development proposals he presented before them. I realised that if I join the ruling party, I can do more for the people, he said.