The positive roles that political parties might play in development have recently been downplayed in favour of accounts of the virtues of civil society and participatory development. This article challenges some assumptions inherent in this shift in emphasis. It considers how political society has mediated the agency of the rural poor in three locales in eastern India in respect of the national demand-driven Employment Assurance Scheme (EAS). In Debra block (Midnapore, West Bengal), where the scheme worked best in terms of employment creation and participation, the dominant political party, in collusion with lower-level government officials, subdued popular demand in anticipation of limited state capacity. In Old Malda block (Malda district, West Bengal), rent-seeking councillors withheld information about the EAS from the poor. In Bidupur block (Vaishali district, Bihar) a key politician ensured that the EAS was converted into a scheme for the production of durable assets that mostly benefited the non-poor. These findings suggest that participatory development in a country like India, where civil society is poorly developed, needs to be considered in relation to particular constructions of political society and the local 'everyday' state
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