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Why David Cameron apologising for Raj won't mean much to India

Love means never having to say you are sorry.

But is David Cameron going to try and say “sorry” in the hope of re-igniting the love affair with India?

The Brits certainly hope so. Cameron landed in India today with the biggest delegation a British PM has made overseas – more than 140 in all. This is his second trip to India in three years and he’s making it even without a return trip from Manmohan Singh.

There is speculation he might even apologize for some of the worst excesses of the Raj – the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre for instance.

Image from IBN Live

Image from IBN Live

What else does New Delhi need London to do to prove its “special relationship” with India?

Dean Nelson, writing in The Telegraph thinks an apology can only help. “There are more than eight million people alive today who were at least 15 years old at the time of independence – and for many, the cruelties of the British Raj are not ancient history but living memory. They may be grateful for the railways we left behind or the parliamentary system we established, yet the memories of some are shaming.”

Cameron can then bend over backwards to thank India for everything it’s given Britain - from chicken tikka masala to Bhikhu Parikh to Kumars at No. 42.

But here’s the problem.

An apology for Jallianwallah Bagh and Bengal famine and Bhagat Singh is all well and good, but does it really matter? Will it make any real difference to deals for AugustaWestland helicopters?

Nelson writes that the problem is the “shared history” looks so different depending on whether you are in London or in New Delhi. The British see cricket, railways and Booker-winning novels in English. The Indians see massacres, babudom and mass arrests.

But the estrangement that so worries David Cameron is not because of a lack of apology and too little post-colonial guilt. It’s the simple fact, that Britain does not want to admit, that the world has moved on and London is no longer its centre. That sun has well and truly set.

Many Indians have the same nostalgic view about Britain as the English have about India. They love to go there for summer holidays and go shopping at Harrods so they can bring home a plastic shopping bag with Harrods written on it. They feel a certain historical affinity towards the place. It also helps that almost every other newscaster on television and radio seems to have a desi-sounding name.

All that notwithstanding, for younger Indians, as with most other parts of the world, the cultural references have long moved on to America. That’s where India wants its political “special relationship” as well. Cameron surely understands that.

The idea that an apology could be a special switch that would set everything right between the old sahib and his erstwhile jewel in the crown is itself stuck in the nostalgia trap. India does not give fighter jet deals to France instead of England out of any post-colonial pique. It looks for cheaper deals. Or gets influenced by kickbacks. Or by middlemen who wine and dine officials.

The real future for Indo-British relationship is actually right under Cameron’s nose and growing – the 1.5-2 million Indian diaspora in Britain. That’s a population that’s far more visible, far more active and far more socially integrated than its counterpart in the US.

Cameron understands this. According to the Kolkata-based The Telegraph he has said “this time I particularly want to build the special relationship between the Indian diaspora here in the UK and make new links between them and businesses in India, so we really get he most out of the special relationship.”

Six members of that diaspora are in the House of Lords. One of them, Karan Bilimoria of Cobra Beer wrote “What will become clear in India this week is that the UK is in a global race for the key emerging markets.”

How it fares in that race will not be affected by any apology, warranted and long overdue as it might be.