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David C. Engerman Discusses Indo-Soviet Cooperation and the Legacy of Economic and Military Aid to the Third World

David C. Engerman speaks about Indo-Soviet cooperation at UW.

April 18, 2017

On April 12, David C. Engerman, Professor of History at Brandeis University, spoke at the University of Washington about the Soviet Union’s position in the Third World. His lecture, “How to Lose by Winning: Soviet Aid to India During the Cold War,” examined economic and military aid to India in the 1950s and 1960s. Engerman discussed how the Soviet Union served as an inspiration and a model for industrialization as India made the transition to independence. According to Engerman, however, this relationship was poorly understood in the West, and cooperation between the two countries was often fraught with economic and political differences. Engerman spoke to the Ellison Center about some of his observations in studying this relationship.

How did Soviet ideas about a planned economy and India’s more market-oriented approach clash when they tried to develop policy?

The Indians and the Soviets in this regard were separated by a common language. They both called it planning. Indians claimed a certain inspiration from the Soviet Gosplan. They had five-year plans like the Soviets had, but it really wasn’t the same process.

It’s not entirely clear to me what the Indian planning commission produced other than plans. It didn’t have operational authority to allocate funds. It didn’t have control over resources. It had to constantly fight turf battles with economic ministries and the cabinet. It was not a power center in India in the same way that the Soviet Gosplan controlled the economy.

This plays out in things like trying to recruit labor. It was very easy to recruit labor in the Soviet Union, where there was a form of discipline, but it was harder in India where people could walk off the job—and they did.

How did the Soviet Union serve as a symbol for India during its transition to independence?

Nationalists were attracted to parts of the Soviet vision. This wasn’t just in India. It was across the non-aligned Third World. They were attracted to the economic vision and to a history that they read, somewhat optimistically, as an empire of peasants becoming a modern, industrial nation.

This is evident after the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957. That really energized those interested in the Soviet Union across the Third World. They saw that at the beginning of the 20th century the country was an agrarian economy, and now it’s a superpower—a space power.

They appreciated the fact that the Soviet Union was not an empire in the sense that they had experienced, like the overseas empires. They were in favor of heavy industry under public ownership as the best way to modernize. They saw central planning as the application of scientific rationality to fraught political problems. They hoped that these problems could be solved by invoking the Soviet model.

They were interested in the Soviet Union and its ideas and practices, but they were hardly about to become a Soviet Socialist Republic. They were not that engaged by Marxism-Leninism and its talk of revolution.

So they saw the relationship as more of a practical way to achieve modernization rather than an ideological model?

There were ideologues, for sure. There was a strong Indian Communist Party that won statewide elections in 1957, but there were many more people outside of the party who were attracted to the Soviet experience without being attracted to Marxism-Leninism or other aspects of ideology.

How did the West see this relationship? Did they think of it as ideological interference or did they recognize that India saw it as a practical means to an end?

I think there was some acceptance of it. Right after the Indo-Soviet agreement was signed, there was a lot of fear in American diplomatic correspondences. One diplomat says, “we want the Indian economy to be strong and this agreement is going to help, so maybe we should be okay with this.” But higher up in the bureaucracy, those kinds of arguments were less viable. So diplomats could send those dispatches from Delhi and Kolkata, but by the time they got to Washington they were read in terms of dividing the world into red and red, white, and blue, and this was a sign that we were losing.

During his lecture Engerman invoked the metaphor of Santa Claus and Father Frost as a way to explain views of the US and the Soviet Union providing aid and support to Third World countries. He said the imagery serves to demonstrate some of the myths both sides believed.

This is to play off the line of the United States being Santa Claus and the Soviet Union muscling in on our Santa Claus. My main point is to show that the initial formulation was wrong. The United States did not have a monopoly on Santa Claus in the Third World, and the Soviet Union did not have a monopoly on covert action and military aid. By the 1970s that would turn out to be closer to true.

What kind of legacy do you see from this relationship after the Soviet Union has disintegrated and India has become one of the largest economies in the world?

There are some fairly simple and practical legacies. Russia is still India’s largest military supplier, and I think India is one of Russia’s largest military customers. That comes out of the relationship forged in the 1960s.

If you are in India, 1991 doesn’t mean the demise of the Soviet Union. It means a set of economic reforms and liberalization that took place that were only tangentially related to the Soviet Union. I think there has been a fairly full-throated rejection of the Nehruvian socialist model, but only by caricaturing it. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has abolished the planning commission and has replaced it with a National Institute of Technology and Innovation. He is sort of tilting against this legacy, but only by caricaturing it. This is a pretty common maneuver.

In this sense, it becomes a negative model. One way to look at it is that this episode of state-sponsored growth was necessary in order to lay the groundwork for more market-oriented approaches. I think that’s a plausible argument. Some economists would disagree with that and say that India should have focused on trade earlier on.