ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Professor Goes to Moscow

Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis has long been accused of maintaining close ties with the Soviet Union. However, his communist links are mostly asserted without documentary evidence. Using new archival material, especially from the archives of Soviet institutions, this article discusses Mahalanobis’s desire for Indo–Soviet ties, especially in the economic realm, as well as the Soviet response to such alliances. 

Even now, more than four decades after his death and three years after the demise of the Planning Commission that he helped lead, the Bengali statistician Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis attracts controversy and strong views. At the peak of his influence in the 1950s, Mahalanobis stood close to the centre of a kind of Cold War in Indian economic circles; echoes of that dispute remain. Critics portray him as a sinister mastermind who brought about the failed Nehruvian economic policy of heavy industry and central planning. His policies were—and indeed still are—derided as autarkic, communist, and Soviet-inspired. Meanwhile, his defenders and protégés, especially those connected with the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) that he directed from its creation in 1931 until his death 40 years later, focus on his contributions towards institution-building and framing of economic policies that established a base for future economic growth. The 1991 economic reforms re-energised his posthumous critics; these reversed many of the policy prescriptions that Mahalanobis had endorsed; his critics also brought home the comparison with the Soviet Union, which met its end that same year (Bhagwati 1993: 53; Rudra 1996: 374–75).

Mahalanobis’s relationship with the Soviet Union, however, was much more interesting and complicated than such canards about the influence of communism on his ideas might suggest. On the one hand, “The Professor,” as he called himself, assiduously wooed Soviet expertise, Soviet funds, and Soviet connections over the course of the 1950s, and did so in ways well beyond what his fiercest critics might have suspected. On the other hand, Soviet officials frequently met his enthusiasm with a combination of cautious engagement, bureaucratic self-protection, and, occasionally, outright disdain. This article studies the evidence, especially from Soviet records but also from Mahalanobis’s own papers, which shows how calling Mahalanobis a Soviet lackey hides the depth of his engagement as well as the sharp divergence between his ideas and those of his Soviet interlocutors.

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Updated On : 19th Feb, 2018

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