Development Politics and India’s Cold War Triangle: An Interview with David Engerman

David Engerman, Professor of History, Yale University

In The Price of Aid: The Economic Cold War in India (Harvard University Press, 2018), David Engerman, a leading historian of US and Soviet modernization ideology and expertise, extends his focus to the intricacy of Cold War competition in India. Through an adroit study of Indian, American, and Soviet domestic and international politics regarding aid for Indian development, he analyzes the complex dance behind how and why particular development projects were built. The debates that surrounded these projects attempted to shape, and were in turn shaped by Cold War conflict and the political maneuvering of the Indian state. Price of Aid deftly captures and articulates the contradiction at the heart of development assistance—that international aid for nation-building projects sought by post-colonial states came with consequences that constrained the very state sovereignty those projects aimed to serve.

Our conversation, at Intelligentsia Coffee in Watertown, MA this June, was wide-ranging—on the arc of Engerman’s remarkable intellectual career, the evolution of the historiography on development, the relationship between decolonization and the Cold War, and that of governmentality and geopolitics, to flag just a few themes that arise in the following interview.

Lydia Walker

Editorial cartoon by K. Shankar Pillai in Shankar’s Weekly (May 18, 1958)

LYDIA WALKER: Let’s open with how you came to Price of Aid: The Economic Cold War in India. Are there threads that connect your three books, Modernization from the Other Shore (2003), Know Your Enemy (2009), and Price of Aid (2018)?

DAVID ENGERMAN: Some threads. The second book is a bit of an aberration. The first book, Modernization from the Other Shore, is about the roots of the Cold War, about how Americans came to conceive of Russia as a developing country, how imperial Russia and the USSR became an occasion for rethinking what economic development and modernization meant.  So economic development has always been an interest of mine, also the USSR as example, model, and actor of development.  And in this sense, the second book, Know Your Enemy, is really the outlier.  Of course, there is a direct connection between the first and second books, amounting to two volumes on American expertise on Russia, one from 1870-1940, the other picking up during World War II and going to the end of the USSR.

WALKER: How does Staging Growth (2003), a volume you co-edited on development, fit in with this arc?

ENGERMAN: I’ve always been interested in development in the Third World, even though the Third World is absent from my first two books. It was very much present in Staging Growth, where I was a member of a four-editor team. We called ourselves ‘the mod squad’ for modernization.  We were just starting to see historians take on these questions, such as Nick Cullather’s Diplomatic History piece called “Development? It’s History.” And even before that, he had one of the first archivally based accounts of development. This was a chance for us to learn about where the field was, pull recent work together, and work to see where the field could go.

WALKER: Where do you think the field of the history of development was in the early 2000s?

ENGERMAN: It’s easy to see now both its excitement and shortcomings. In its excitement, it was a chance to see the Cold War era where the Cold War was not completely focused on US-USSR tensions, to see it outside of moments of crises. That was terrifically exciting, to think about things that didn’t dominate the front page of the news, but nevertheless had a profound effect on the Cold War and on the world in general.

In retrospect, the scholarship was very American centered, the source base was often American-ist, primarily from Washington and various presidential archives.  We were excited in Staging Growth to have a few essays from specialists in Southern Africa and Japan, but in that initial phase of the field, a lot of work, including my own work in the volume, was really centered around the United States.  In addition, work was really focused on what I think of as ‘development talk’ — ideas. There was very little on actual development projects themselves.  One of the reasons for this was that the USAID records were at that point nearly unusable.  Over the last ten years, USAID has opened some records, and the great archivists at the US National Archives have really made this possible.  So the big changes in the scholarship over the last decade have been to de-center the US, and to focus more on actions rather than talk.

WALKER: This also brings up how you use archives. People think of the US government record as easily accessible, open, and in English, and it is. Nevertheless, it is also rather mammoth and can be difficult to work in.

ENGERMAN: I’ve only worked in a tiny corner of US government records, but I’ve spent a lot of time in that corner. I like doing archival work. There’s something exciting, but also deeply clarifying about it.  I’ve written books that have an archival base, because I’ve chosen topics that are best answered that way. In the archive, I’m interested in reading documents for what they both say and don’t say, it’s not just about obtaining them, but seeing how we can fit them into larger contexts.

WALKER: One of the big interventions of Price of Aid is that domestic and foreign politics are intertwined, especially in development, with national planning and international intervention.

ENGERMAN: Yes, and that is one of the reasons this book took a lot of time. I was trained in US and Soviet history, and had to learn a tremendous amount from the scholars who work in and on India.  I didn’t start out with a good concept of the political complexity of the independent Indian state. To put it bluntly, I began with the idea of ‘India’ or really Nehru, navigating between ‘the US’ and ‘the USSR.’ This is a timeworn or time-honored perspective since that’s also how many contemporaries in the 1950s and 60s conceived of the relationship. However, it was hard to make sense of the dynamic in that fashion when immersed in the archives, seeing the range of activities and different directions in Indian politics. I found it easier to make sense of what was unfolding by focusing upon disagreements in India, rather than focusing on a singular individual or government policy. And it’s not that India was uniquely complex and riven with fissures and disagreements — it was like that in the US and Soviet Union.

Indira Gandhi at the Oval Office, March 1966 (available at Lyndon. B. Johnson Presidential Library website).

WALKER: Having worked on modernization expertise in your first two books, do you see your work as a bridge between development talk and development practice?

ENGERMAN: I originally came into what became Modernization from the Other Shore during my masters at Rutgers, working on American responses to Russian famines. Then during my PhD at Berkeley I became more and more interested in how American conceptions of Russians and the Russian economy shaped responses, so in that sense these economic issues have always interested me. Both my Americanist advisors – Diane Shaver Clemens on the diplomatic side and David Hollinger on the intellectual side – had strong groups of graduate students to work with (and were strong influences themselves), so I learned for instance from my classmate, Nils Gilman, who wrote the preeminent intellectual history of modernization theory. While I came to an interest in development practice later, I want to emphasize that there are good projects on both ideas and practice; we need all kinds of different work. Daniel Immerwahr’s work is one important example of following something from conception to closer to practice. And for myself, I’m still thinking about what’s next, but I can see myself turning more towards intellectual history for my next project.

WALKER: Would you talk a bit more about what’s next?

ENGERMAN: I don’t have too much to say, but I’m interested in the intellectual history and geopolitics of global economic inequality. I’m interested in the New Economic International Order, and particularly inspired by Chris Dietrich’s new book, Oil Revolution: Anticolonial Elites, Sovereign Rights, and the Economic Culture of Decolonization while I think about the trajectories of economists from the 1950s to the 1970s.

WALKER: Thinking spatially, you’re one of the few historians of the US in the Cold War who works on both sides, who works in Russian and in Russian archives, and your work has covered both sides of the polarity of the Cold War. But now with Price of Aid, it’s a triangle.  What are the differences between a ‘bipolar’ project and a ‘triangular’ project?

ENGERMAN: The way you conceive of a project structures it. If I had begun Price of Aid in India, I would have included Romania, Britain, and other countries’ contributions to development politics in India. Or I could have structured the project around a set of international case studies of US-USSR competition. While I began with a triangular relationship, it ended up as more of a fractal, as each node is not a unitary item, but a site for contestation. In addition, the relationship is not First World-Second World-Third World, but rather a set of relationships between three specific countries operating in specific frameworks.

WALKER: You’re a historian of the US in the World, who has spent a lot of time in the Indian archives, mapping Indian domestic politics.

ENGERMAN: For all our assertions of American power, there are some places where it operates, and there are some places where its inverse occurs, where it gets ‘operated upon.’ Cold War competition became a resource for internal disputes within India. And it is not only about economics.  There’s your work on international advocacy for subnational sovereign claims, a whole layer on cultural diplomacy, the publication of Russian and American books, foreign sponsorship of the Indian Institutes of Technology and of Management, public health—Sunil Amrith’s work for instance—these are all other elements that one could deal with that show the interplay between international and domestic politics.

WALKER: How was it working in Indian archives?

ENGERMAN: I loved it. In some ways, my reference point was the Soviet-era archives in Moscow, including the one that housed the records for the state committee for economic connections abroad, which was open two days a week for six hours a day, with five files a day being ordered, and they had to be ordered from a different building across town. Compared to that, working in India was a pleasure.  I wish the National Archives of India were more empowered to obtain materials that the ministries could and should be providing to them, but for the materials they have in their possession, they are readily available. I also appreciated being in the archives for the chance to interact with Indian historians. I’m really quite taken by Lara Putnam’s recent article  in the American Historical Review, “The Transnational and the Text-Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows They Cast”. We learn a lot of things, not just practical things about which computer runs fastest, or which archivist is inclined to be most helpful, but also being pointed to certain kinds of documents, to ways of looking at questions, and also their broader contexts. I needed to learn from historians based in India who are expert in this material, so being in the Indian archives was also an occasion to get exposure to—in my case not enough time to get immersion in—but at least exposure to the main currents of Indian researchers. In addition, it situated my work. Archival research—in India, Russia, the US, or elsewhere—gives you the chance to pause, to reflect, and to think, ’we’re here in this place.’  It gives us a situated-ness.

Soviet economist M.I. Rubinshtein plants a mango seedling at Indian Statistical Institute, Calcutta while Institute director Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis and others look on, winter 1954-55
(from author’s private collection).

WALKER: That situated-ness can be even more important for international work.

ENGERMAN: And the location of that situated-ness can be quite telling. For Price of Aid, my place in India was Delhi and Kolkata (at the archives of the Indian Statistical Institute). It is not Bhilai or Bokaro, where the development projects actually took place. And in some ways, that fits in with some of the directions I would have liked to pursue, but am not equipped to do, which is to follow these development projects even further into practice.

WALKER: You define development politics — what I see as your central analytic—as “the competition for external aid and its entanglement with domestic politics.”  Why did you chose that term?

ENGERMAN: I wanted to label a dynamic I could observe happening in all three countries, but especially in India, of how international politics collided with, shaped, and energized domestic politics.

WALKER: Price of Aid is a Cold War book. But it seems that your next project on global inequality may well stretch into the post-Cold War world, or at least focus more on the later Cold War. How do you see these words and the processes they describe changing over time?  Price of Aid is very much situated in the late 1950s-1960s, the ‘high’ Cold War, if you will.

ENGERMAN: Yes it is, for reasons that are internal rather than external. The book ends where a new chapter of the trilateral India-US-USSR relationship begins, with the 1971 Indo-Soviet Friendship Pact. Part of me wonders, and some of colleagues at SHAFR [the Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations, of which Engerman was President from 2016-17] may well strongly disagree, whether in the next twenty years the Cold War may fade in historical importance.  One thing that animates this book, and will animate my next project, is understanding the intersection of the globalization of American-Soviet conflict that we call the Cold War and the process of decolonization and the decline of empires, which has often been neglected or put into a Cold War context. It’s possible to see the decline of empires and the rise of newly independent nations as a shift in magnitude that may actually be more significant in world historical terms than that of the Cold War. Of course, because the Cold War was global there were few corners of that process that were not touched by American-Soviet conflict, but it shifts around what’s the central dynamic and what’s the influence or interference on it.

WALKER: Yes, I know, and you are very much preaching to the choir here, on the relationship between, and different causal values assigned to, decolonization and the Cold War.

ENGERMAN: Of course, we don’t need to resolve the debate of which matters more, most of us would say that both matter in different ways in different places—here the Latin Americanists have a very important perspective; in Renata Keller’s book Mexico’s Cold War: Cube, the United States, and the Legacy of the Mexican Revolution, in the work of Gil Joseph and his students—the Cold War looks very, very different there than in India. The Cold War is a global phenomenon but that doesn’t mean it takes the same form all over the globe. We’re starting to build more knowledge of those pieces, and how they relate to decolonization. In some ways, I’d like to move away from the term ‘decolonization’ to the rise of independent nations. That moves the focus away from empires dissolving, to the independence movements that were ubiquitous and really the drivers of this geopolitical transformation.

WALKER: Yes, and that brings to mind Todd Shepard’s very illuminating point about the origins of the word decolonization, and how, at least in English, it’s only by the mid-1960s that it comes into general use, as well as Stuart Ward’s article that develops that point. In my own work, I noticed that my subjects in the early 1960s preferred ‘national liberation’ or ‘national self-determination,’ words that centered those who were claiming independent statehood. Decolonization isn’t really an actors’ category. Speaking of terms, you have a very cool section where you talk about the differences between governmentality and geopolitics. Usually development is talked about in terms of governmentality or lack there of —

ENGERMAN: Or in terms of nongovernmentality, a great term of Gregory Mann’s….  But I also really pay attention to geopolitics.  There, I’d say that I’d like to think that this book bridges the gap between governmentality and geopolitics.  The works on governmentality are primarily by anthropologists—Tanya Li, James Ferguson for example —and the rich theorizing in the anthropology of development. Historical work on development has paid less attention to governmentality, though there is a good deal embedded in Nick Cullather’s Hungry World even if it’s not very explicit. But I feel there are at least two conversations going on about histories of development, one of which is enmeshed in the way that development became a tool for expanding the role of the state in everyday life and practice (governmentality), and the second of which looks at global competition. The Price of Aid tries to draw these two together.

WALKER: Thinking about Ferguson’s Anti-Politics Machine, do you see an anti-politics—or an attempted neutralization of politics into the politics of self-perpetuation—of development during the Cold War, or are circumstances too ideologically polarized?

ENGERMAN: Well, development often did see those professions of neutrality. It often proclaimed itself to be the neutral application of scientific expertise to a particular problem, even though the thrust of recommendations might have changed radically over five years with the coming of a different political context. So, there was a powerful attempt to attribute a solution to an apolitical, or even anti-political, impulse.  At the same time, for the projects I was looking at, politics was all over. Part of the ‘Will to Improve’ in Tanya Li’s book requires some detachment from day-to-day political exchange, but that’s operating at a different level than figuring out which project to build, which sources to use for purchases, and so on.

WALKER: This connects to your conclusion on the paradox of Cold War development, that this becomes nation-building at the expense of states. Projects that are designed to bolster state sovereignty come with strings that constrain it.

ENGERMAN: Yes, it’s a paradox in that it is the same process that does two contradictory things. In some sense then, it may fit better with the literary definition of tragedy. Externally (as well as internally) funded development projects help build up the state, which are in many case precarious states, newly independent nations built out of highly diverse populations with in some cases haphazardly drawn borders inherited from the colonial period, so the impulse of state-building is quite strong. For example, in India, there is such a concern to build a unified national entity that there’s a single time zone. Yet the effort to build that unified state through externally funded development undermined elements of state control. It did bring more power to the center, to Delhi, as opposed to the states within the Indian Union, yet it also gave ministries, even sub-ministerial units, new opportunities to pursue their own agendas, to operate as their own impresarios, even at times working against the approved wishes of what we may think of as the central government’s wishes, the Planning Commission for example, or the Cabinet.

WALKER: Speaking of paradoxes, aid itself is both an alliance and an intervention that generates conflict and cooperation.

ENGERMAN: It’s a field where you can see how different sides are seeking common ground but not necessarily common cause. Different elements are pursuing their own interest and finding common ground in which to do it.

WALKER: Regarding alliances, how does Non-Alignment fit in—is the Indian government particularly comfortable with the politics of development aid because of its allegedly Non-Aligned political stance? Of course, money is money.

ENGERMAN: Well, money is money, but not really—it depends on when you have to pay it back, in what currency, on what terms, not to mention how much money, which differs dramatically between the eastern bloc and the west. The interesting thing about Nonalignment is that it is always celebrated even as it is defined very differently. Nonalignment did not have a single meaning. Even regarding the Indo-Soviet Friendship Pact of August 1971, which Americans saw as the abandonment of Non-Alignment, as did some in India as well, there’s still plenty of talk about how it’s not a treaty of alliance, but rather a treaty of friendship. And even countries that were aligned—Pakistan, for example—were still very much engaging in development politics.  One of the most telling phrases I found is from a document from senior Indian officials on a delegation to Moscow, which describes what they’re doing as “diversifying dependence.” I like that term a lot because Nonalignment was often described as a moral critique of Cold War blocs, but at the same time it was a practical strategy of diversifying dependence—though not without costs, as Price of Aid details. Tanvi Madan writes about this as well.

WALKER: My final two questions, which are a bit unfair as they are specific yet open-ended:  What is the price of aid?  And who pays the price?

ENGERMAN: There are of course benefits of aid, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t costs. The price of aid is the paradox of development—that the pursuit of a stronger state and more self-sufficient economy often comes with unintended consequences of undermining the authority of the very state that is trying to bolster its reach and influence.

WALKER: Is it only the recipient nation who pays the price?

ENGERMAN: Development politics exists in all three countries, but the stakes are very different.  Neither the US nor the Soviet government faces existential crises over disagreements over the economic future of India. The Indian government obviously does. So even though the dynamic of development politics takes place in donor and recipient countries, the price is very heavily paid by the recipient.

WALKER: Would it be too strong a term to call this dynamic a Faustian bargain?

ENGERMAN: Well, Faust entered into a bargain willingly. He knew the costs and benefits at the outset. This isn’t that situation. While Soviet and American officials were quick to seek political advantage, they did not do so with the specific goal of undermining state sovereignty in India, although their efforts had that effect. This is where tragedy comes into play—the very efforts they’re engaged in to strengthen elements of the state, end up having the opposite result.

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