For six months, there was no work. Only hunger and debt. When work finally came, it proved deadly.

“His leg swelled up, sir,” said a neighbour. “Itna hi dukh tha. That was all to his suffering.”

Gorkha Manjhi died on October 14, three days after he came back from the fields with a swollen leg. The 22-year-old farm worker had been hired to harvest paddy. It was his first job in six months.

In Bihar’s Muzaffarpur district, where Manjhi lived, the coronavirus-induced lockdown devastated livelihoods first, then a spate of floods washed them away.

Months later, most fields are still water-logged. As farm workers like Manjhi return to salvage whatever is left of the crop, they are getting sucked into swamps and bitten by snakes.

No one knows what caused Manjhi’s leg to swell. The village doctor administered an injection. His mother applied traditional jadi buti. But he could not be saved.

He is survived by his old parents, Jhingur Manjhi and Phulmat Devi, and his young wife, Reena Devi, who barely looks out of her teens, but has two children to raise, one of them a suckling baby.

With the breadwinner gone, the family faces an uphill struggle to repay the thousands of rupees of debt that they accumulated in the last six months – simply to buy food.

Since April, as part of its coronavirus-relief package, the Modi government has been providing 5 kg free foodgrain per person per month to those enrolled in India’s public distribution system.

But in Kinaru village, many landless and impoverished Dalit Musahar families like the Manjhis have not been able to access the grain since their names do not – bizarrely – feature on the ration beneficiary list.

While some have belatedly been added to the list, with new ration cards arriving three months ago, they are yet to get any grain. The village ration dealer said he had not received supplies for new ration cardholders from the government.

Work remains scarce. The Musahar families say they did not get even a single day’s work under the government’s rural employment guarantee scheme.

The result is widespread hunger.

“We eat one day, and skip meals the next day, saving whatever food we have for the children,” said Ranju Devi, who lives next door to the Manjhis.

In her kitchen was a pot of freshly cooked rice, a plate of potatoes, a pile of rotis, all made from provisions purchased on loan from the local grocer that morning. The food cost nearly Rs 100 but would not last more than two days, she said. She owed the grocer about Rs 10,000, which at “10 rupaiya sud” or 10% interest, would take months, if not years, to repay.

Ranju Devi's child eats a meal of rice and potatoes.

The Musahars live on the brink of hunger even in the best of years. But this year hunger is all pervasive in Bihar. Everywhere you go, it is the same refrain: “Koi kaam nahi, ghar baitha hain.” There is no work, we are sitting at home. “Ek time kha raha hai ek time nahi kha raha hai.” We are skipping meals every other day.

In such a calamitous year, the state is holding assembly elections in early November.

After 15 years in power, Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United) is seeking a fourth term for the National Democratic Alliance government he leads in partnership with India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

The main challenger is the Rashtriya Janata Dal, which is hobbled by the absence of its leader Lalu Prasad Yadav, who is currently serving a prison sentence for the embezzlement of public funds in what is popularly known as the fodder scam. Yadav was the chief minister of Bihar for 15 years till he was defeated by Kumar in 2005.

Kumar, an ally of the BJP since the early 2000s, parted ways with it in 2014 after Narendra Modi took over its leadership.

In 2015, Yadav and Kumar, both backward caste leaders who share a common political lineage, buried their rivalry to jointly contest and win elections against the BJP. But their coalition government fell apart in a year and half. Kumar returned to the NDA.

Two years later, the NDA won 39 of the 40 seats in Bihar in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Just when it seemed the state was heading into the 2020 assembly election with an older configuration of forces, a junior NDA partner, the Chirag Paswan-led Lok Janshakti Party, broke away from the Bihar alliance in October. Swearing allegiance to Modi while launching a blistering attack on Kumar, Paswan announced his party would field candidates against the JD(U), but not against the BJP.

Since then, the news has been dominated by discussions over whether the BJP is trying to covertly sabotage Kumar’s leadership. Could the NDA return to power with the BJP in the dominant position? Would the uncertainty damage the NDA?

Caught up with the political intrigue, however, much of the commentary seems to have missed the larger story of a groundswell of anger in Bihar, mixed with apathy, cutting across the usual faultlines of caste, as people face possibly the most daunting crisis of their lives.

Most fields are still water-logged in Muzaffarpur. Credit: Supriya Sharma

A group of women sat on charpoys on the side of the highway in Muzaffarpur. Women are seen as a special constituency cultivated by Kumar in his 15 years in government, most recently by prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcohol in the state.

But these women had more existential concerns on their mind.

“Now that elections are coming, even media people are coming,” said Sanju Devi, flying into a rage. “When we were drowning, no journalist came to check on us, no leader came to help us.”

Early August, an embankment near their village Mohammadpur Kothi broke and flood waters gushed in, forcing hundreds to flee to higher ground for safety. Months later, they are still living in makeshift tents made up of sarees.

During a similar wave of floods in 2017, the Nitish Kumar government had organised relief camps, said Devi, an elected ward member in the area. But this year, the government simply abandoned the flood-affected, who numbered nearly 8.4 million across 16 districts.

As illnesses spread, the residents of Mohammadpur Kothi sought help at government health facilities, said Devi, but were shooed away. “We were told to go away, there is corona,” she recalled. “Now that elections are coming, there is no corona?”

Sanju Devi shows the embankment that breached near her village. Credit: Supriya Sharma

Preoccupied with this year’s losses, women in the villages of Muzaffarpur have nothing good to say about the Nitish Kumar government.

“Khaane bina mar rahe hain, poora paisa khet mein chala giya,” said Pramila Devi, a farmer in Natrauli village. “We are dying of hunger. The fields consumed all our money.”

Her family’s three bighas of farmland have not yielded a single crop this year.

The wheat cultivated in the winter was damaged by untimely rain and hail at the time of harvest in February and March. Besides, the harvest itself was disrupted by the coronavirus-induced lockdown. “The police would enter the fields to beat up people,” she said. “They did not allow people to work.”

Then, the monsoon paddy was washed away in the floods. Around 7.5 lakh hectares of agricultural land in Bihar was destroyed in the floods this year, the Central agriculture minister said in response to a parliamentary question. With many fields still water-logged, there was no hope of cultivating the autumn maize.

For all their losses, Pramila Devi’s family has received just Rs 6,000 as flood relief. “Is that enough to make up for our losses?” she asked.

Overhearing the conversation, Meena Devi, who runs a food stall in the village, joined in: “Corona ke chalte har cheez mein dikkat.” Everything became difficult because of the coronavirus. “We opened our shop despite the police threatening us. How long can we go hungry?”

Meena Devi at her food stall in Natrauli village.

At a labour chowk in Muzaffarpur city, questions on the upcoming elections are met with hostility.

“Janta ka dukh samajh ke bhejiye, tabhi baat hoga,” said Gurudev Jha. First understand and report on the suffering of people, then we can talk about the rest.

The young mason said he had been cycling 6 km every morning from his village, Dighra, to look for work in the city, without much success: “Last month I got work for just eight days.”

Worse, the wages had crashed from Rs 500 per day to Rs 350, the workers said.

“Employers are misusing the lockdown,” said Raja, who also works as a mason or raj mistri. “They say take whatever you are getting or go away.”

“Majboori mein pet ke karan kar rahe hai,” he explained. We are working out of compulsion, for the sake of our stomach.

Daily wage workers cycle to the city to look for work every morning.

Who is responsible for the hardship? Most people offer the same answer – no matter which caste they belong to.

“Nitish sarkar,” said the crowd in Natrauli village. “Modi sarkar is sending help for everyone from the top. But the people at the bottom are blocking it.”

Subodh Paswan, a construction worker, claimed: “Modi government gave 5 kg free grain and Rs 6,000, while Nitish Kumar showed us his thumb.”

But the Rs 6,000-flood relief money had been distributed by the state government, I pointed out. “Nitish kumar kya apne ghar se diya, kendra sarkar diya na, Modi sarkar diya,” he responded. Did Nitish Kumar source the money from his own house, the Centre gave the money, the Modi government gave the money.

A young basket maker similarly credited the Rs 1,000-coronavirus relief money his family had received to the Modi government, while the bank transfer was actually part of a state government initiative.

At the labour chowk in the city, the workers agreed: the Modi government was efficient, but not Nitish sarkar. “Not just the mazdoor varg [the labour class], the entire public thinks there needs to be badlav [change],” said Nand Kishore Mahato.

Farm workers prepare the fields for a tobacco crop.

This year’s upheavals may have sharpened public anger against the Nitish Kumar government. But the disenchantment seems to run deeper.

“Nitish did great work in his first term,” said Jimedar Sahni, an unemployed driver who lives in Ratnauli village. Sahnis are counted among Other Backward Castes. “Before he was elected, people were scared to travel after 7 pm. He made the roads better and safer.”

But his next two terms were disappointing, said Sahni, echoing the common perception that Kumar failed to deliver on his promise to industrialise the state and expand employment opportunities. “George Fernandes set up factories in Muzaffarpur,” he said, referring to a former minister who was elected as the Lok Sabha MP from the area in the 1970s. “Lalu chewed them up. Nitish said he would revive them, but did nothing.”

Rajesh Singh, a petrol pump owner and contractor from the Bhumihar caste who owns large estates in Muzaffarpur, said Kumar exercised tight control over the bureaucracy in his first term. “It was easy to get government work done,” he said. “Only after completing the work would officials say ‘kuch de dijeye’ [Give us something]. Now, they won’t do the work till you pay them.”

There is also widespread, intense anger over prohibition. “Who says alcohol isn’t being sold in Bihar?” said Anil Kumar, a toddy tapper in Bishunpur village. “Alcohol worth Rs 200 is selling for Rs 400. You can order it on the phone, it will be delivered to your home. The police, in fact, control the trade.”

The floods have washed away many village roads in Muzaffarpur.

For all the talk about badlav or change, there is no consensus on what shape it could take.

While upper-caste voters are strongly rooting for a BJP-led government, the sentiment is mixed in backward caste communities.

At the labour chowk, for instance, Nand Kishore Mahato, from an OBC community, said: “This time, Lalu ji will come.” This provoked Sunit Kumar Sahu, from another OBC community associated with the prime minister, to aggressively counter him: “Modi will form the government.”

But Modi was in power at the Centre, I pointed out. “Yes, his party will form the government in Bihar,” Sahu clarified. But the BJP was in alliance with Nitish Kumar’s JD(U), I reminded him. “It will be a coalition government,” he responded, “BJP ke netritva mein” – with the BJP in the leadership role.

Similar friction broke out at the corner shop in Bishunpur village. Aakash Kumar, from the Jaiswal upper caste, who runs a snack shop in the city, claimed the BJP would come to power. But Anil Kumar, the toddy tapper from the Dalit Pasi caste, contested this. He said he had voted for the JD(U) in the last election, but this time, will vote for the RJD, which would form the government. “Tejashwi has promised 10 lakh jobs,” he said, in a rare reference to Lalu Prasad Yadav’s son.

Strikingly, most RJD supporters – even young ones – still identify the father as the leader. “Lalu ji will form the government,” said 18-year-old Majeeb of Mohammadpur Badal village, underlining Tejashwi Yadav’s failure to establish his independent credentials.

Could the weakness of his challenger save the day for Nitish Kumar? Almost no one speaks in his support. Nearly everyone is disappointed with him, if not outright angry. But many still grudgingly conclude: “Koi vikalp nahi hai.” There is no alternative.

“Those who formed the government in the past, everyone knows their image,” said Sahni, the unemployed driver, in a reference to Lalu Prasad Yadav. “The public does not have an option.”

Many voters admit to their confusion. They say they will vote for the best candidate in their constituency – not for any political party. “Ho sakta hain nirdaliya nikal jaye,” is a commonly heard statement. It is possible an independent candidate could win.

With this, come dark prophecies: “Close finish”, “hung assembly.”

Nitish Kumar came to power in 2005. That year, elections held in February threw up a fractured mandate, forcing another round of polling in November, which Kumar decisively won.

Could his exit as chief minister be as messy as his arrival?