The infighting in the ruling Janata Dal (United) reached a flash point on Sunday. The party leadership confirmed it had moved for termination of assembly membership of four out of its18 MLAs who had voted against the party nominees in the June 19 by poll for two Rajya Sabha seats.
"I have made a written request to the Speaker towards this end, pointing out that the action of these MLAs showed they had effectively left the JD (U)", said parliamentary affairs minister and JD (U) chief whip Shravan Kumar.
He said the Speaker has asked all four to present themselves in person at his office on June 25 to state their positions in response to the party petition for their disqualification.
Asked why only four out of 18 rebels MLAs had been chosen for action, Kumar said: "As of now the party apex leadership has cleared action against these four. It will decide about the others later", he told HT.
The move selectively targeted the rebel campaign 'kingpins', namely, Gyanendra Singh Gyanu (MLA from Barh), Niraj Kumar Singh Bablu (Chatapur), Ravindra Rai (Mahua) and Rahul Sharma (Ghosi).
"The move is clearly illegal and intended to intimidate us and to make the remaining 14 rebels fall in line with the leadership. But it won't work", Gyanu told HT soon after the party move became public.
He said the case made out by the JD (U) leadership – that the rebels had defied the party whip to vote against the JD (U) nominees, would not stand legal scrutiny.
"The election commission had made it clear before the RS by election that no whip could be issued to make MLAs vote for any particular candidate", he said.
The Barh MLA said the dissenters in the party firing line would explain this to the Speaker when they came face to face with him on June 25. "If any action is taken against us after that, we'll move court", he said.
Gyanu, one of the closest confidants of former chief minister Nitish Kumar till quite recently, said the JD (U) move would inevitably impact the future of the Jitan Ram Manjhi led party regime in Bihar.
"If required all 18 rebel MLAs may resign from the assembly. This will bring down the JD (U) strength in the assembly to well below the half way mark and leave it entirely at the mercy of Lalu Prasad", he said.
Chief minister Manjhi appeared to tacitly acknowledge this risk when he advocated a soft line against the rebels, except those who had taken an irrevocably 'hard position'.
"I'll talk to dissenters. Just because they voted against our RS nominees does not mean they don't love the JD (U). They may have their reasons", Manjhi told reporters, on his return from New Delhi on Sunday.
Even JD (U) state president Basishtha Narayan Singh indicated the party strategy was to isolate the leaders of the rebel campaign from those among them who might fall in line with the party leadership.
"Some of the rebel MLAs are in a mood for repentance", Singh told HT from New Delhi, also on Sunday.
But at least the rebel MLAs put on notice for termination of assembly membership appeared to be in no move to relent.
One of them, Niraj Singh Bablu, said he would tell the Speaker he had not violated any law to invite disqualification. "We don't intend to leave the party", he said.
Another MLA on the firing line, Rahul Sharma acknowledged that the JD (U) leadership had acted selectively to pursue pressure politics. "As no whip was applicable as per EC orders, we have not violated any", he said.
The JD (U) leadership had earlier claimed issuance of a whip for the Rajya Sabha poll was in order under the provisions of the 10th schedule of the constitution.
The 243-member Bihar assembly has an effective strength of 232, as 11 seats are vacant. Out of this, 230 voted in the June 19 Rajya Sabha by elections.
Of these, JD (U) nominees Pawan Varma and Ghulam Rasool Baliyawi could win the support of just 99 party MLAs. They could exceed the half way mark of 115 only with the backing of 17 RJD MLAs (18 in case of Baliyawi), two Congress MLAs, one CPI MLA and three independents.
The rebel backed independent candidates, Anil Sharma and Sabir Ali, secured the votes of 18 JD (U) MLAs, 83 BJP MLAs, three RJD rebel MLAs (two in case of Baliyawi), two Congress rebels and two independent MLAs.
"If all 18 rebel JD (U) MLAs resign, it will leave the party with just 98 MLAs (excluding the Speaker), well short of the half way mark of 116 vis a vis the effective house strength of 232", Gyanu pointed out.
This, he said, would leave the Manjhi government "totally at RJD leader Lalu Prasad's mercy".
But then, this is a hypothetical situation, considering the 14 rebel MLAs, who have not been put on notice, may or not quit the House in sympathy with the four put on notice.
The JD (U) rebels have been up in arms against the party leadership since the induction of new 14 ministers in the Jitan Ram Manjhi cabinet on May 20, including many, the dissenters pointed, were 'party hoppers'.