Welcome to India, Mr Cameron. Just don't mention the Koh-I-Noor

Two hundred and fifty years ago, two European conquistadors competed to sell cutting edge technology to India's leaders. Now it's Cameron and Hollande's turn

A quarter of a millennium ago, as the Indian Mughal Empire imploded, two European conquistadors – the Englishman Robert Clive and the Frenchman Joseph Dupleix – competed to sell cutting-edge military technology to India’s squabbling leaders. Today, their successors, David Cameron and François Hollande, have resumed the contest – although now India is in the ascendancy, as Europe declines. In the 1750s, the British emerged victorious. But today it seegetms that the spoils will go to the French, and the legacy of Britain’s imperial past is partly to blame.

Earlier this week, President Hollande landed in Delhi to seal the deal on 126 French-made military aircraft – his first Asian trip since being elected. David Cameron will arrive in a last-minute bid to persuade the Indians to jilt their French suitor and save the rival EADS bid. It is a mark of India’s potential significance to Europe’s ailing economy that both premiers are accompanied by vast business retinues – from arms dealers to handbag makers.

Cameron is wooing from a position of weakness. Back in 2010, his first venture into Indian commercial diplomacy failed to re-launch the “special relationship” with Britain’s old dominion. Cameron was at pains to distance himself from the imperial past; he came “in a spirit of humility”, and acknowledged that Britain could not “rely on sentiment and shared history”.

Indians, however, were not so willing to put the past behind them and, during a TV interview, Cameron was asked when he would be returning the famous Koh-I-Noor diamond – taken from India in 1849 and now embedded in the late Queen Mother’s crown. A flustered Prime Minister insisted it must stay in Britain – an answer that created a Twitter-storm, amidst demands from Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson that the jewel be restored to atone for the colonial past.

The Koh-I-Noor diamond may not be at the top of India’s agenda, but it symbolises underlying tensions over race and empire that bedevil a range of other disputes. One of these is Indian resentment over the Coalition’s efforts to slash immigration with measures that hit Indian students in Britain. The stripping of London Metropolitan University’s licence to admit non-EU students left 350 Indian students facing deportation; meanwhile, a minimum starting salary of £20,000 has been imposed for those who want to stay on and work. Indian student numbers in Britain have fallen by a quarter to 30,000.  This all stirs old memories of racial discrimination against Indians within the British Empire – the very issue that prompted Gandhi’s first civil disobedience campaign in South Africa.

Ahead of his trip, Cameron has tried to apply balm to this wound, but British universities are now up in arms over the Border Agency’s demands for regular and intrusive monitoring of non-EU students. And Boris Johnson, when visiting India last November, admitted that new immigration rules had damaged London’s reputation. Cameron is caught between the internationalist, pro-business wing of his party and the Little Englanders. But previous governments have also been less fleet of foot than the French in courting the new India.

France’s early willingness to recognise India as a nuclear power and to share civil nuclear technology has given it a head start in the new great game. It is, therefore, no surprise that the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was the chief guest at the 2009 Bastille Day celebrations in Paris. He hasn’t visited London since 2005 and it is extraordinary that Cameron is returning to India before Singh has made the normally mandatory reciprocal trip to London.

It may be that Cameron is playing a longer game and has his eyes on a change of government after India’s elections next year. He has been courting the Hindu nationalist Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, tipped by some as the likely victor. It is also hoped that a good relationship with Modi will strengthen links between the economically dynamic Gujarat and the increasingly wealthy Gujarati diaspora in Britain.

However, this strategy is fraught with danger. Modi is a highly controversial figure – accused of involvement in the 2002 anti-Muslim “pogrom” in Gujarat and subjected to a diplomatic boycott for 10 years (which was formally breached last October by the British High Commissioner).

In the short run, the disgraced Modi has much to gain from entertaining British overtures, but his political associates on the hard right of the Hindu nationalist movement take a very dim view of the British and their imperial legacy. For them, India’s ills emanate from the evil trinity: “Marx, Macaulay and Madrassas”, neatly linking their bugbears of socialism, the Raj and Muslims. This rhetoric is targeted less at the British themselves than at Congress Party leaders – from Nehru to Singh – who are seen as the effete and Anglicised heirs of imperialists. It is rather difficult to imagine Modi, should he become Prime Minister, as a great ally of the British.

So despite Cameron’s protestations of a fresh start, the colonial past still haunts the relationship – and will do so for some time to come. For even Cameron, with his recent talk of old ties and hot curries, has not entirely rid himself of Raj clichés.

This may all seem harmless enough; less so is the very clear difference between the Conservative message in Delhi and the one back in London. Just as Theresa May crafts immigration policy to counter the challenge of Ukip, so Michael Gove rewrites school history books to appease Tory backwoodsmen. Though David Cameron may not wish to emulate Britain’s 18th-century warlords, his Indian audience will be bemused by the prominent reappearance of Robert Clive in the new history draft curriculum. This may be a sin for which only the return of the Koh-I-Noor diamond can atone.

Maria Misra teaches history at Oxford University. She is the author of ‘Vishnu’s Crowded Temple: India since the Great Rebellion’ (Penguin)