In recent years, the Swat valley in North-West Pakistan has witnessed various waves of ‘politics’. Different groups have attempted to change socio-economic conditions, each according to their clear visions of a better future. After a period of top-down attempts at modernisation by the state, development projects inspired by deliberative democracy have attempted to increase political space for ‘local people’, but failed. Swat has also witnessed agonistic politics, with the emergence of a fundamentalist social movement that constructed a radical discourse of otherisation, entering into an antagonism with the state that created war and havoc. Thus, Swat offers a challenging learning ground to reflect on practices for producing change, as well as on theoretical currents in academia. I argue that deliberative and radical theorising provide insights into the political life of Swat, but fall short analytically (missing social complexities), procedurally (favouring specific techniques of social negotiation), and normatively (due to preconceived understandings of a ‘better future’). I substantiate my argument by showing that both positions take euro-centric conceptualisation of ‘citizens’, a (modern) ‘state’, and ‘citizen/state relations’ as universals – basic conditions that are not met in the post-colonial setting of Swat. I therefore argue that our curiosity should be redirected from ontologised explanation to an analysis of actual practices of societal negotiation and the norms within which these are embedded. Such insights will make it possible for us to appreciate the enormous challenges people in Swat face in their struggle to negotiate aspirations among disparate voices and to imagine some common understanding of a ‘better future’ – challenges that go beyond what deliberative or agonistic theorising can offer.