Based on a case study of two watershed development projects in Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh in India, this article argues that participatory development projects are legitimized by using formalistic compliance criteria, while removing politics as a context. It shows how key aspects of the liberal political framework have not been fully harmonized with communitarian theories; the result is an interpretation of participation as a set of practices that are far removed from politics. As a development practice, participation can turn into the itemizing of participatory objectives, which are then to be fulfilled in the same way as physical and financial targets. The practitioners see their role as merely ‘technocratic’ and the projects they implement as ‘apolitical’. The author argues that, central to these claims, is a limited definition of ‘politics’ as a one dimensional domain comprising contest and irreconcilable conflict, from which the participatory projects, based on so-called consensus, publicly expressed, are to be shielded. The article concludes that participatory projects accommodate and reflect existing relations of domination and control much more than their outward orientation would suggest.