An important strand of scholarship has argued that central government can play a central role in counterbalancing the forces that tend to disfavour the poor. In this paper, we aim to inform this scholarship by reflecting on the interface between local government and local people in two Indian States: Andhra Pradesh (AP) and Madhya Pradesh (MP). Drawing upon 12 months of primary research, we argue that although the Government of AP has not devolved power to the extent that proponents of decentralisation would have liked, its populist approach to certain forms of poverty reduction has empowered the poor in ways that the more ambitious decentralisation agenda in MP has not. This, we argue, is due in part to the fact that MP's decentralisation process failed to challenge the well-entrenched power of the village chiefs, the Sarpanches. But the discrepancy can also be explained in terms of the historical evolution of 'development populism' in AP. In particular, we argue that the strong performance of programmes aimed at subsidising rice for low income households and providing credit to women's 'self-help groups' (SHGs) is part of the State government's wider political strategy of enhancing and maintaining electoral support among women, Scheduled Castes and the poor.