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US didn’t give India its first computer due to Mahalanobis’ Soviet sympathy. Then ice thawed

In 'Planning Democracy', professor at the University of Notre Dame Nikhil Menon shows how P.C. Mahalanobis' Communist ties cost India's digital goals in the '50s.

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If the British and Soviet computers were quests fulfilled, the saga of the American UNIVAC was one of unrequited interest. Standing for Universal Automatic Computer, it had been unveiled in 1951 when its manufacturers handed it over to the US Bureau of the Census. It acquired national recognition the next year when it starred on CBS alongside the television news anchor Walter Cronkite. On election night it accurately predicted Dwight Eisenhower’s surprising landslide victory in the US Presidential election over Adlai Stevenson. This had been both the first presidential election that was broadcast on television coast to coast and the first time that computers were used to anticipate the result. In the 1950s, the UNIVAC became a byword for computers in the American public. It would later be featured on the cover of a Superman comic book and in a Wile E. Coyote cartoon, where it helped ensnare Bugs Bunny.

The Professor pursued this machine for years. Its cost and the shortage of foreign currency in India, however, made outright purchase impossible—it was valued, three years later, at $10,00,000. But despite his persistent tugging at the sleeve of aid agencies for more than a decade, he never succeeded. The Indian government, like the Professor, remained unaware that the person spearheading the mission to bring computers to India was himself an obstacle. India was unable to get a digital computer from the United States through the 1950s partly because of Mahalanobis’ reputation as a Soviet sympathizer during the Cold War. Between 1950 and 1954, Mahalanobis engaged in numerous informal discussions in Washington, D.C., regarding the provision of technical aid to India and computers in particular.

This was at the height of the Red Scare in the United States, with the fear-mongering Senator Joseph McCarthy leading a crusade against real and imagined communist influence in American society and Soviet infiltration into its government. It was not a context likely to favour the Professor. Files at the State Department painted a menacing picture of him. Allergic to his political slant, they described him as ‘extremely sympathetic to communist doctrine’. A dispatch, classified ‘Secret Security Information’, from the American Embassy in New Delhi to the State Department in the summer of 1953 corroborates the ominous glare in which the Professor was viewed. It indicated that the State Department already possessed files that described him as a ‘notorious fellow traveler and sympathizer of the Soviet Union’ and the Indian Statistical Institute as a ‘Communist apparatus’.

The American consulate in Calcutta sent a confidential note to Washington, D.C. bolstering this view. It contained the transcript of a two-hour-long conversation between Mahalanobis and the President of Brooklyn College, Harry Gideonse. The report began complimentarily, describing Mahalanobis as a person of ‘exceptional personal charm and broad cultural background’. After that, it was downhill. It pointed out that Mahalanobis, unlike most Americans, was convinced that the Soviet Union had ultimately peaceful objectives. Gideonse even sensed sinister designs afoot. ‘To me, Mahalanobis is far more significant than straight communist propaganda. He has personal and moral authority, apparent integrity, and an impressive command of relevant information. His ideas are in my judgment a direct preparation for an authoritative solution to India’s economic problems.’


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By next winter, the view that Mahalanobis was a closet communist who was distressingly sympathetic to the Soviet Union had congealed in American back channels. Ironically, the Professor had himself become a liability in the attempt to convince America to grant India a computer. Another confidential memorandum sent from the US Embassy to the Department of State warned: ‘The problem of P.C. Mahalanobis . . . is well known to the Department . . . It will be noted that the present position of the Embassy and TCM (Technical Cooperation Mission)/India is not to give any assistance to the Indian Statistical Institute because of Professor Mahalanobis’ reputation of being at least a fellow traveler.’ Unsurprisingly, nothing came of the Professor’s negotiations with the Technical Cooperation Mission. It also appears he remained in the dark about his own unwitting role in stymying the progress of the proposal.

By early 1957, there had been either a change of heart or strategy, at least among American officials in New Delhi. The icy opinion of him had thawed. The Technical Cooperation Mission office in Delhi forwarded a project worth $15,00,000 in favour of the Indian Statistical Institute to Washington with $10,00,000 for the computer and $5,00,000 for the cost of training over a period of two to three years. Much to the Professor’s chagrin, the proposal was once again turned down. A letter from Ambassador Bunker during the summer of 1957 suggests that this time even the Embassy in New Delhi was dissatisfied with the outcome. According to the note, the real reason the director of the International Cooperation Administration, John Hollister, had turned down the request was on the grounds that ‘with all the unemployment in India spending a million dollars on a fancy calculating machine cannot be justified’. Hollister was known to be lukewarm about India.

Aggravated, and no doubt puzzled, by Washington’s repeated unwillingness to part with a computer, the tireless Professor looked to the Ford Foundation. He communicated with Douglas Ensminger, the Ford representative in India, to inquire about the Foundation’s willingness to help. That autumn, some of the Professor’s friends in America—all of whom had recently spent time at the Institute—wrote to the President of the Ford Foundation. The Institute, they explained, was responsible for ‘collecting, tabulating and analyzing much of the social and economic data which provides the basis on which India’s plans are prepared and progress is evaluated’. Presenting them with a computer ‘not only would aid India in its planning and development, but would contribute greatly toward building a stronger bond between India and our own country’.

Four years later—despite the Professor remaining an uncomfortable pebble in the boot of US agencies—nothing budged on the American front. Mahalanobis maintained pressure on the government. He raised the matter with the Prime Minister, discussed it with the Planning Commission and wrote beseeching letters to the Ministry of Finance and Union Cabinet. Broadening the pitch from planning and statistics, he now expanded the list of potential beneficiaries to scientific and industrial research and military calculations. He detailed how the UNIVAC could perform very different types of calculations than the Ural. The Soviet machine was best suited to solving algebraic or differential equations or preparing mathematical tables. The American one was more efficient at scrutinizing large volumes of numerical data, such as that involved in processing information unearthed by the countrywide sample surveys. Further, he stated, the two computers weren’t interchangeable. Using one instead of the other was just as impracticable as using ‘an aeroplane as a substitute for a car in going from one place to another in the
same city’.


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The Professor and the Institute had sought this contraption for a decade but had nothing to show for their Sisyphean endeavour. External forces effectively regulated the Indian computer programme through most of the 1950s. As the world leader in computer technology, America’s stance on India’s computing aspirations mattered a great deal. American agencies turned down Mahalanobis and the Institute due to misgivings about their political loyalties and their perceived vulnerabilities to Soviet encroachment in the harsh glare of the Cold War. Their proposals were either smothered behind the scenes or ignored, so they died on the vine. Even when such suspicions receded, the tepid attitude of American aid agencies and the Ford Foundation conspired to deny India this computer. By the end of the decade, however, Mahalanobis was confronting a much bigger issue—convincing his own government.

This excerpt from ‘Planning Democracy’ by Nikhil Menon is published with permission from Penguin Random House, India.

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