On Monday, President Bush signs a law implementing a landmark nuclear cooperation deal that will open the doors to civilian nuclear cooperation between India and the United States. The completion of the deal has been welcomed by the Indian government, but as Anjana Pasricha reports from the Indian capital, both left- and right-wing political parties there have expressed concern about its potential impact on New Delhi's nuclear weapons program.
India's refusal to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, along with its development of nuclear weapons, has cut the country off from civilian nuclear exchanges for more than three decades.
That isolation will now end with President Bush's signing Monday of a law, passed by the U.S. Congress on December 9th, revising America's Atomic Energy Act. The revision will allow the United States to sell India nuclear fuel and reactors for its civilian nuclear energy program, despite New Delhi's refusal to sign the NPT.
The deal still has to be approved by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group that controls export of materials with nuclear applications. But no major obstacles are anticipated, and companies in the U.S., France and China are already eyeing what is expected to be a massive market for nuclear technology.
The deal has been hailed in New Delhi as a milestone in broadening relations between India and the United States. It is also seen here as a tacit acceptance by Washington of India's emergence as a nuclear weapons power. Under the deal, New Delhi will open its 14 civilian nuclear plants to international inspection, but its eight military facilities will remain off-limits.
Uday Bhaskar of the government-funded Institute of Defense Studies and Analysis in New Delhi calls the deal "hugely significant."
"The change of law is very historic, because it was the United States that had enacted this legislation to constrain India, to fetter India, to penalize India, and the same Congress had now decided that they would change the law to admit India in civilian nuclear cooperation… However, we now have to see how this agreement would be taken forward in terms of the fine print," Bhaskar explains.
The government pushed hard for the deal, saying it urgently needs to expand the nuclear energy sector to help drive India's rapidly growing economy. At present, nuclear power provides only three percent of the country's energy needs, but the government wants to increase that to 25 percent within three decades.
New Delhi has welcomed the finalized deal as a "big step forward," and says it is consistent with India's national security and energy requirements. In the coming months, however, it still has to negotiate a nuclear cooperation agreement with Washington, for which it will need broad political support.
But the pact faces opposition here from both supporters and opponents of the government, along with several strategic experts, primarily because of some changes worked into the final bill in Washington.
The deal's most strident critics include both the leftist parties that support the government, and the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.
They say the final bill deviates from the original deal struck between President Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Two clauses are causing particular concern. Under the U.S.-passed legislation, the U.S. President would be required to end export of nuclear materials if India tests another nuclear device. Another clause, which is not binding, calls for India's cooperation in efforts to contain Iran's suspected nuclear build-up.
India's leftist parties and the BJP say such conditions could cripple India's nuclear weapons program without assuring an uninterrupted flow of fuel for civilian reactors. They say it could also limit India's right to reprocess spent fuel, and adversely affect its independence in foreign policy.
A leader of one of those parties, Sitaram Yechury of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), says the prime minister has promised parliament he would not accept significant amendments, and the deal should be abandoned if these concerns are not addressed in the upcoming nuclear cooperation agreement.
"So we are very clear that no deal which contravenes the assurances that have been made…by the Prime Minister can be acceptable to us, and therefore it cannot be acceptable to India," Yechury says.
Several strategic experts, such as Bharat Karnad of New Delhi's independent Center for Policy Research, echo these misgivings.
"The entire deal is predicated on India not testing again, and if India does not test again, India does not have a safe, proven nuclear arsenal, and that is a big liability for India," Karnad says.
The government is trying to calm such concerns. In a statement to parliament after the bill's final passage in Washington, Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee said the government had taken note of what he called "extraneous and prescriptive provisions."
But he expressed confidence that the nuclear partnership with the U.S. will be in accordance with agreements announced by the Indian and American leaders earlier this year.
"The U.S. administration has categorically assured us that this legislation enables the United States to fulfill all the commitments made to India in the July 18 and March 2 joint statements," Mukherjee says.
Mukherjee emphasized that the conduct of foreign policy will be determined solely by India's national interest, and the country's nuclear weapons program will remain independent of any agreement with the United States.