The British Empire
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 Franois 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 seems 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 …